From the Sino-NK Archives (25) – 24.07.2014 -Politics and Pollack: It Take a Nation of Fishes

Kim Jong-un visits the <a href="http://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/kim-jong-un-visits-construction-of-8-january-fishery-station/">"KPA's 8 January Fishing Station" </a>on January 8. Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong-un visits the “KPA’s 8 January Fishing Station” on January 8. Image: Rodong Sinmun

Politics and Pollack: It Take a Nation of Fishes

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

It is hard to recall a year in North Korea’s presentational narrative (other than during the era of the Arduous March) that wasn’t somehow critical to developmental focus, important to resource strategy, vital to agendas of increasing productive capacity. Of course, this is because forward momentum is not only important in terms of approach; it is also primary to functionality. Without the perception of forward movement, Pyongyang’s developmental strategy might appear to degrade. Yet even by historical standards, 2013 and 2014 have been extraordinary in terms of commitment, focus, and the sectorial spread of projects and themes.

I have already offered extensive comment on this year’s New Year’s Address, in particular in terms of renewing the contract between practical focus and authoritative narrative. This is represented in particular by the anniversary of the “Rural Theses on the Socialist Rural Question.” By restating the goals and structures of the Rural Theses, as well as their integration into the agenda of the  current Kim government, agricultural capacity and focus serve as carrier signals through which legitimacy, authority and charisma are transferred between the various eras of North Korean governmentality.

Here in this “Politics and Pollack” series I have focused on narratives of fishing and aquaculture in the history of North Korea. Fish, shellfish and other products of the sea are of traditional import for Korea, a nation bounded by water on three sides, and serve as important sources of protein. Their importance as a food resource is further extended by their availability irrespective of developmental successes or efficiency gains. Accordingly, fishing matters have been vital since North Korea’s creation as a sovereign entity. Extraction and utilization of piscine resources was of interest during the initial articulation of the Rural Theses, and nothing much changed thereafter: that interest continued in the developmental stasis of the 1980s and on into the institutional crisis of the 1990s.

In Vogue: Fishing Back on the Table | Although it diminished in importance during the Arduous March itself, fishing is now back in developmental vogue. This is perhaps connected to the revitalization of the agricultural narratives of the Rural Theses. The appearance of fishing in the New Year’s Address, along with a call for both memorialization and actualization of the Rural Theses, frames the development of the fisheries sector in a contemporary narrative mould. Kim Jong-un’s words that the state “should take measures to bolster up the fishing sector. The sector should follow the example of the fishing sector of the People’s Army that landed a huge haul of fishes by carrying out the order of the Supreme Commander unto death,” assert the relevance of military participation in the fishing industry, while the reference to carrying out the requirements of the “Supreme Commander” fold it into the close embrace of the Kim dynasty. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s conceptions of fishing issues are vital to its continued institutional importance, their revolutionary charisma a driving impetus for its development. This charisma is being harnessed by Kim Jong-un in the current era.

Kim Jong-un’s order to modernize fishing vessels and infrastructure and to “launch a dynamic fishing campaign by scientific methods…” while potentially deriving from any era of North Korean development, places the sector firmly in a framework of technical and institutional approach that is intrinsically modern, and very much “2014” in the North Korean sense. We have seen similar strategies deployed in fungal development, turf and grass production, and more recently toward meteorology. While the fishing industry is to have the KPA and its institutions with their “unusual resolve and stubborn practice” as a model, it is more important for it not to fall into the traps of institutional stasis assailed by Kim Il-sung in the 1950s.

Enter 2014: The January 8 Fisheries Station | Kim Jong-un’s first official moment of “on the spot guidance” in 2014 embedded this modernized, scientific approach to piscine resource management, but equally connected previous examples to the new paradigm, allowing them to serve as hooks upon which further development could accrue. Rodong Sinmun recounted his visit to KPA Unit 534’s “Aquatic Products Refrigeration Facility” on January 8 as having underscored the “need to make the flames of the innovation drive in the fisheries field of the People’s Army rage furiously in the fisheries across the country.” It is interesting to consider the institutional functionality of undertaking a developmental project in the midst of such a furious rage; Kim Jong-un demanded that the KPA unit undertake the building of a fishing port facility to supply the refrigeration facility, and ostensibly complete its construction “before the Day of the Sun and start the fish supply from coming autumn.”

January 8th Fishing Station

January 8th Fishing Station. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The “January 8 Fisheries Station” is required to connect not only the charismatic threads of Kimist authority, military urgency and technological development; it is also to absorb previous rhetorical elements derived from the intent to create a “strong and prosperous state.” Rodong Sinmun’s January 30 editorial reviewing developments linked to the project asserts, for example, “Fishery plays an important role in improving the standards of people’s living,” and, “To shore up the fishing industry is not simply an economic task, it is a political task to carry out the behests of the great generalissimos and our Party’s intention to make our people live better off.” Doing so at such a pace does not (in theory, at least) militate a reduction in technical or research focus; however, for a project built at a revolutionary pace must not neglect research or technical competence, since “Fishing operation today is in a certain sense a brain’s warfare and technical warfare. Therefore, it requires of us to keep the fishing industry scientifically and technically update.”

A little over a month later, Kim Jong-un was again present on the grounds of the January 8 Fishing Station, visiting on or around February 24. This visit both reiterated the urgency of the project and the importance of the KPA as a trusted institution within the developmental remit; a point that it is interesting to note in light of previous speculation as to the place of developmental issues and their co-option by Jang Sung-taek and his supporters.

I thought of the service personnel of the KPA who had carried out any task assigned to them, when I was making up my mind to build a modern fishery station here, and so, I declared I would entrust to them the project to which the party attached importance…

North Korean fishery station goes into operation on January 8, 2014 | Image via The Daily NK

The new North Korean fisheries station goes into operation on January 8, 2014. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un’s statement about the importance of the KPA seems to reassert some level of hierarchical structure in the developmental agenda, with the KPA being the tool for the bidding of the Korean Workers’ Party, or at least part of the ecosystem of the project. This is reinforced by the presence of several important individuals from the KWP: one Central Committee department director and at least two vice-directors. Rodong Sinmun’s recounting of the visit concludes with a reminder of both its specific urgency and the future planning required for its successful utilization. Only two months in, and the institutional eye was looking towards the long term, officials being given instructions “to select captains and fishermen and prepare them as all-round fishermen in advance so that they may go out for a fishing operation right after the completion of the project.”

In the end it would only be five months between narrative initiation and completion of the January 8 Fisheries Station, its construction apparently achieved successfully on April 30. As was the case throughout the construction period, multiple narrative and developmental streams converge upon the project, reinforcing and supporting each other, as is the case in many such projects. Connecting the charismatic authority of Kim Jong-un, the political ideological framework provided by Kimism and the Korean Workers’ Party and the efficiency and brute strength of the Korean People’s Army, it is apparent that the impetus for the project is conceptualized within a wider framework of revolutionary and narrative urgency. Such projects are thus undertaken beyond the bounds of normal/non-revolutionary time: “This is another miracle and a model of creation of speed of Korea which can be created only by the Korean People’s Army possessed of indomitable fighting spirit and heroic fighting traits.” They operate in, as if it were possible, charismatic time. Yet in spite of their charismatic tone and content, they are also conceptualized within a more mundane, frame, one in which “it is aimed to supply fishes to baby homes, orphanages, orphans’ primary and secondary schools and old folks’ homes across the country.”

Multiple Scales: What Pollack Can Teach Us | Is this not the developmental lesson to be extracted from these three essays on fishing, fishery resources and the narratives that surround them? These projects and the developmental, environmental or agricultural sectors in which they are placed essentially function on multiple scales, as indeed do politics and ideology in North Korea. All ultimately connect with the narratological strands that serve to underpin, define and legitimate the charismatic political form; all strands lead to the Kims or their conceptual origination, and thus all are transformed by that charisma and those narratives into something not far off the miraculous. This narrative of the mythic and the miraculous sees these projects and those participating in them as existing in a revolutionary charismatic time, in which projects such as the January 8 Fisheries Station and other fishing projects can be achieved at infeasible yet “realistic” speeds. At the same moment there exists a more mundane chronological plane, a timescale of everyday commitment, toil and dedication. This is the domain of the (soldier) builders and the shock brigaders, of the provincial party members, the institutional apparatchiks, all those that are charged with bringing narrative, assertion and aspiration to practical reality.

In a sense neither of these chronologies and categories of spatial relationship or engagement are disconnected from the carrier signal of charismatic politics, both being vectors by which Kimist narratives must be embedded or developed. Herein lies the interplay between Kim Il-sung’s post-colonial assertions from 1948, his call for ship development at Ryukdae and Chongjin shipyards in 1969, and Kim Jong-un’s desire for a “miracle” of institutional construction in 2014; a liminality, slipperiness and transferability across institutional scales, developmental epochs and politico-narratological forms that provides for the connectivity between politics and Pollack.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (24) – 17.06.2014 – Politics and Pollack: Fishing in the Age of the Six Goals

The Cholsanbong (named after a hill in Musan, on the Chinese border), a ship produced in Chongjin in 1985, sets sail. | Image by Graham Moore, on Shipspotting.com

The Cholsanbong, a ship produced in Chongjin in 1985 and named after a landmark in a coal town on the Chinese border, sets sail. | Image: Graham Moore/Shipspotting.com

Politics and Pollack: Fishing in the Age of the Six Goals

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In the previous essay in this series, we encountered a North Korea of construction, both in the immediate period following liberation from Japanese colonial rule and in the post-Korean War era. At that time, Pyongyang was faced with a mammoth institutional and technical task, mirroring the comprehensive nature of allied bombing campaigns and the dynamic fighting of the war’s first two years. Reconstruction was most imperative on land, especially as a remedy for the destruction of Pyongyang itself and the wider degradation of North Korea’s industrial infrastructure and capacity.

This reconstruction of urban and industrial space was matched by difficult tasks within the agricultural and food production field. Likewise, the need to augment capacity in the field of aquaculture was pressing, made all the more difficult by the post-war settlement which had essentially solidified US dominance of the naval field. The postwar years thus produced particular challenges for Pyongyang’s maritime institutions.

In spite of these challenges, North Korea’s post-war maritime development mirrors both the ideological and the practical drive and agenda of its land-based institutions. First, the DPRK engaged in rapid reconstruction at the direction of supportive Soviet technical specialists, replacing and regenerating technical capacity, fleet, and catch equipment. Secondly, in a brief period of ideological inspiration from Mao’s Great Leap Forward that birthed the still frequently utilized Chollima movement, Pyongyang’s wider agricultural and industrial agenda was reshaped. This occurred before a longer period of geopolitical triangulation (described by Charles Armstrong) in which North Korea sought to go its own careful equidistant way between the two poles of affiliated power: China and the Soviet Union.

As the rhetorical and physical battles between Moscow and Beijing intensified in the late 1960s, Pyongyang ended the decade on a rising note, as indicated by the announcement of the “Six Goals” in 1968. (Fishing capacity was a key element in the “Six Goals.”)  The 1970s were a period of international extension in other fields in North Korea, but in the fields of resource production (e.g., fisheries), policy developments became demonstrative of the beginnings of later internal stagnation.

Fishery Workers are Discouraged | Fisheries policy in this period begins with a 1968 text by Kim Il-sung, which serves to reiterate Pyongyang’s institutional developmental focus:

Our party has been paying close attention to the development of the fishing industry since immediately after liberation… within a few years after liberation the material and technical foundations of the fishing industry were laid. [1]

But this essay is but a subtext to Kim’s far more expansive “On Taking Good Care of State Property and Using It Sparingly.” This text is equally concerned with critiquing past developmental progress. As Kim noted:

[W]e cannot rest content with this. So far we have laid only the basic foundations of the fishing industry.[2]

Kim’s institutional developmental critique intriguingly addresses environmental issues and developments that, in a sense, echo later ecological concerns of a more contemporary North Korea. These concerns in our time have focused on land-based ecologies, but Kim here focuses on the maritime environment “because of change in the current” which had resulted in “only small numbers of mackerel and yellow corbina in these waters.”[3] Kim decried the “frequent floods” which fishery workers had told him they had to contend with. [4]

Primarily, however, the principle initial concern of the text is its critical framing, which is deployed against institutional structures and participants, even in their responses and solutions to these environmental changes. Kim states:

[B]ecause we are inexperienced we have only prepared many nets needed for catching mackerel… since we had expected big shoals of this fish to come… we could not catch them because they did not come…. After that fishery workers are discouraged and at a loss for what to do.[5]

Ryukdae and Chongjin Shipyards | Technical and strategic development are also critiqued. Even the fleet materiel sourced from foreign supporters, previously lauded, was now problematic:

The 450-ton trawler we are now producing has many shortcomings. [For example,] it can be used for fishing only in the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea… [and] it cannot be used in the Pacific Ocean where the waves are moderate.[6]

The plan, like its counterparts on land, revolved around a large expansion in sectorial capacity, replacing these smaller, seemingly unsatisfactory boats. But even if it needed to be done quickly, this expansion was to be carefully managed and located in a few centers of industrial excellence—for example, the Ryukdae Shipyard in the Komdok Island area. This shipyard was to serve as such a center for the industry in the West Sea.[7]

The primary locus of this fleet and sectoral renewal was to be at Chongjin, where apart from Ryukdae’s efforts to build mid-range ships of some 600–1,000 tons, North Korea was to construct much larger vessels of between 3,000 and 10,000 tons.[8] While institutionally this production was to be supported by the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Machine Industry Number 1, and Provincial Party Committees, other sub-sectorial elements close to Kim’s heart would need to be involved. He writes:

[A]t the moment people at the ship repair yards busy themselves getting engines, spare parts and paint, only after the ships return from the deep seas. They say therefore that it takes a few months to repair a ship, and sometime it even requires 150 days. Consequently they miss the fishing season.[9]

Such a structural failure of supply and organization would, of course, not be welcome in any nation’s industrial sectors, even less so in one for whom capacity and output is absolutely vital. Just as a reorganization was pending within those institutions undertaking the fishing fleet’s construction, so too was there to be new connections made between those departments and projects responsible for that fleet’s maintenance and support. As Kim put it:

[I]f we are to succeed in this work, we must have a large quantity of engines and other spare parts in stock… a ship spare parts factory should be built in Kimchaek City… then it will be easy to obtain supplies of steel from Songjin Steel Plant.[10]

North Korean aquaculture in the present era | Image from Rodong Sinmun, via NK Food Blog

North Korean aquaculture in the present era | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Fishing on a Smaller Scale | Apart from the more dramatic and grand scales of development and construction focused on the deep sea, “On Developing the Fishing Industry Further” also sees connectivities and possibilities on a smaller scale:

At the moment there are many good comrades in big cities… who live on pensions because of illness… it will not be bad to engage them in fishing… they will be very pleased if they are told to catch fish with nets and rods in boats while they continue to receive the benefits from pensions. [11]

Kim Il-sung envisages here the revival of a model of semi-informal fishing co-operatives using these marginalized or peripheral workers. The word “semi” is of course highly important as these are still to be well integrated into institutional and political planning and serve as much as part of sectorial planning as those facilities and sets of workers undertaking activity in the deep sea.

Beyond developmental capacity and institutional structuring, the final key point of this text is one equally familiar to analysts of North Korea and scholars focused on agricultural development and capacity elsewhere in the world in the coming decade. Pyongyang’s developmental focus begins to assert the categorical importance of scientific research and the place of the scientist within institutional structures, and Kim is no less assertive within this text: “It is not an exaggeration to say that the modern world is one of science and that science and technology decide everything.”[12] This scientific focus is important in the protection of stocks, the development of fishing areas in freshwater environments. Science is to become vitally important in North Korea, not only to fishing and fisheries,but to the wider frameworks of politics and ideology. For example, one of this text’s final concerns is to embed this scientific commitment within this political imperative:

[T]he fishery sector must carry out a forceful ideological struggle against the conservatives who are trying to check our advance and thus develop the science of fisheries as soon as possible….”[13]

Blue Crabs, Gizzard Shad, and Anchovy | This scientific gloss on fishing development in North Korea becomes more politically acute as the decade develops it seems, becoming located in the contemporaneously familiar and still troublesome West Sea area. Countering what is perceived as a world food crisis, Kim writes: “the world is currently experiencing an acute food shortage… according to information from abroad, as much as a quarter of the world’s population is now suffering from malnutrition.”[14]

In his “On the Further Development of the Fishing Industry in the West Sea,” Kim cites much of future development within that most disputed of North Korea’s maritime areas. Here Kim Il-sung carries over much of the focus on small scale fishing from earlier texts, creating a potentially enormously crowded developmental space within a complicated locale:

[I]t would be reasonable to establish fishing bases around Ongjin, Monggumpo, Sukchon and Mundok in South Pyongan and in Cholsan, Chongu, at the mouth of Chongchon River and on Sinmi Island in North Pyongan Province….[15]

While Kim’s concern to harvest the “well known fish in this sea”[16] is clear and the focus on the West Sea areas developmental possibilities acute, its generative capacity means that Pyongyang will see the expansive deeper spaces of the East Sea as its institutional priority. Kim Il-sung’s “Let Us Develop the Fishing Industry and Increase the Catch” draws out the importance of the East Sea as a zone of pelagic exploitation as well as reconfirming the themes of science, development, political connection, and capacity increase which have marked the 1970s as a decade in policy terms:

The fastest and most rational way of solving this problem is to catch large quantities of fish. Our country is bounded by the sea on three sides, so it is much faster and more economical to solve the protein problem by developing the fishing industry….[17]

While this text begins with an extremely positive note,[18] it is clear from even a brief reading that in spite of the importance of the East Sea fishery and the extent of institutional concern shown to it, there are factors at play to thwart this ambition. Some of the hesitancy and “conservatism” Kim wished to banish through the incorporation of scientific modernity and technical development appears still extant at the close of the decade:

I have emphasized on more than one occasion that the officials in charge of fishing should study deep-sea fishing. But they have claimed there are no fish in the deep sea, and have not looked into methods of detecting shoals and catching the fish. They even altered the contents of the textbooks to concur with their opinion.[19]

Kim Il-sung giving guidance to party members in 1961 | scan courtesy library of Queen's University, Belfast

Kim Il-sung giving guidance to party members in 1961 | Image: Library of Queen’s University, Belfast

Pollack the Fish of Choice in a Disappointing Decade | Despite some two decades of development, political impetus, and imperative it is in a sense a little astonishing that Kim Il-sung in 1978 could determine that “since summer fishing has never been organized on the East Sea, we have no clear idea of what kinds of fish are living in the East Sea and what kinds of migratory fish visit it.”[20] It appears that it is not only the research and knowledge basis that is weak, but even infrastructural development, and the ambition behind it has been neglected. Far in fact from the aspirations to 10,000 ton ships, Kim Il-sung almost balefully recalls that “some years ago a 1,000 ton fishing vessel was built, but some officials of the fishing industry said that it was unserviceable even before it was used.”[21]

Ultimately, while political drive and ideological embedding served to push along North Korea’s developmental narratives within the fishing sector, the 1970s, according even to Kim Il-sung’s own assertions, ended on a downbeat tone. Whatever has happened in the previous decade, scientific development and research had not occurred, institutional connections remained counterproductive and diffuse, and both capacity and actual productivity and catch appeared substantially disappointing. It is apparent that many of the same drag factors and inefficiencies that beset the agricultural sector on land and crippled North Korea’s industrial and economic productivity had been present in the fishing sector as well. Kim writes:

Pollack is a very good fish. Because it contains less fat and more protein than other fish, it is not only palatable but also good for the health.… From olden times, therefore Koreans have offered it at the altar. It seems that our ancestors also like Pollack.…[22]

While pollack may well have been Kim Il-sung’s fish of choice and deep and frequent catches an aspiration of Pyongyang’s fishing fleet in the 1970s, the era of the “Six Goals” and “Great Tasks” (though primarily on land), would soon fall given these diminishing and seemingly unrealizable tasks.

The Party Congress of 1980 would abandon wider strategy and goal setting for the next decade, determining that perhaps it was better to focus on simply achieving what was possible despite inefficiency and incapability. Maritime production and the fishery sector were as subject to this abandonment as were the national framework of forestry goals and tidal reclamation. However following this later period of stagnation and near collapse, fisheries policy would again post-1997 connect with institutional priorities and a new developmental agenda. This era, our current, which features the January 8 Fisheries Project and Kim Jong-un’s new apparent interest in matters pelagic will be the subject of the third and final part of this series, in which connections and inheritances from this foundational, yet somehow fitful and unfulfilled, period will be analyzed and uncovered.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “On Developing the Fishing Industry Further,” Works 24 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1969), 52.

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 57.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 58

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 61.

[12] Ibid., 66.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Kim Il-sung, “On the Further Development of the Fishing Industry in the West Sea,” Works 32 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1977), 65.

[15] Ibid., 70.

[16] These are listed as “planktonic shrimps, prawns, Acetes chimensis, Blue Crabs, Gizzard Shad, Yello Corbina, Setipinna Gilberti, Anchovy, Sand Ell and Grey Mullet.” Ibid., 67.

[17] Kim Il-sung, “Let us Develop the Fishing Industry and Increase the Catch”, Works 33 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978), 86.

[18] It reads: “A large amount of Pollack was caught by our fishermen last winter. The catch is large every year, but last winter was an all-time high….” Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 88.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 93.

[22] Ibid., 98

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (23) – 30.5.2014 -Politics and Pollack: A Piscine Story

Kim Jong-un assesses the maritime bounty | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong-un assesses the maritime bounty | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Politics and Pollack: A Piscine Story 

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

It surely cannot have escaped the analyst’s eye that fishing and fishery matters appear to have moved several notches up Pyongyang’s list of priorities in 2014. In fact, ever since Rodong Sinmun’s announcement “The Party Requested, They Did It!” just before Christmas, a gush of piscine reportage has emanated from North Korea. Some observers might link this to the putative reasons advanced for Jang Sung-taek’s execution, namely, that Jang had gained some sort of control over fishery rights and resources in the West Sea that had previously been within the remit of the KPA. Those somewhat less dramatically inclined might remark that this emphasis on fishing might be expected, as it had been featured as a key element of this year’s New Year’s Message, along with the heavy steer towards the Rural Theses, so it should not have been anything of a surprise.

Whatever the reason tendered, this recent outburst of state media activity on fishing matters requires our attention for various reasons—foremost because it emerges as a departure from the norm. In developmental and resource extraction terms, Pyongyang’s traditional policy has very much been focused on land.

This year’s emphasis on Sepho and the Rural Theses, reflecting the state’s guiding project and principles, respectively, focused on land use. Even Masik Pass was a land-based development. By contrast, deep water fishing for North Korea has been made difficult by both the unfavorable topography along its eastern coast and the US command of the sea, crystallized at the Korean War’s armistice into the Northern Limit Line and inducing painful issues for the DPRK on the western maritime boundary. Deep-water fishing and industrial fish production also requires extensive resource outlay and a level of institutional efficiency and organization that North Korea has often lacked in recent years. But it has been tried in the past and, examining the commitment of resources, North Korea’s current efforts to increase the capacity and extent of its fishing activity appear genuine.

This essay is in several parts in toto. While I will examine in detail in the second part how this latest outburst of focus and energy on fishing and fishery resource connect to both current and contemporary events, as well as more generally the political themes of the Kim Jong-un era in subsequent essays, I want to first take the reader elsewhere temporally as well as pelagically. While our contemporary era sees resource and developmental planning and approach in North Korea intricately connected to the sphere of the politically charismatic and theatric, when it comes to fishing was it ever thus?

Kim Il-sung and deep sea trawlermen |Image: kannc.org

Kim Il-sung and deep sea trawlermen |Image: kannc.org

A New Basis for Fishing | From the beginning of institutional development in Pyongyang, post-Liberation, it is possible to be narratologically thematic when it comes to fishing matters, and this in fact is partly what this essay is about. However, before I examine in a periodic fashion its overall narrative, it has to begin somewhere. The first text relating to piscine matters in North Korea (although naturally it references projects and intent from long before its own pages), is “On Developing The Fishing Industry on a New Basis.” Presented to the Central Committee of the KWP on July 8, 1948, the reader can still discern the post-Liberation and post-colonization tensions of the early years in North Korea.

Seabound on three sides, our country is very rich in marine resources. The fishing industry is a major component of our national economy and plays an important role in improving the people’s living standards.[1]

While Kim Il-sung’s assertions of the sector’s importance will become familiar to the reader, the texts’ temporal context is clear from the issues arising from the post-Liberation de-Japanizing of the nations’ economy and institutions: “[W]e set up a new fishing system by reorganizing the fishing associations formed in the years of Japanese imperialism… through nationalization of fishing grounds, fishing boats, processing factories, netting plants and other fishing equipment and facilities formerly owned by Japanese imperialists, their collaborators and traitors to the nation.” [2]

Equally it is possible to catch a glimpse of the brief post-Liberation mixed economic strategy of North Korea, a strategy most overtly evident in the case of land reforms. Just as was the case in agricultural production, Pyongyang in its denuded post-Liberation state could not, it seems, rely on the infrastructure and bureaucracy left behind by imperial Chosen. Instead, and against its ideological inclinations, it was forced to utilize whatever private enterprise was left or had been in Korean hands at the moment of Liberation. It was not a comfortable relationship apparently: “Of course, we have encouraged private fishing and will do so in the future, too. But, if we rely on private fisheries alone, we shall not be able to shake off the backwardness in our fishing industry and satisfy the people’s demands for marine products.”[3]

Whatever the discomfort, Kim Il-sung also asserts some familiar institutional themes, such as a focus on planning: “a plan must always be concrete, scientific and dynamic…;”[4] institutional structure and connection: “each bureau of the People’s Committee of North Korea related to the fishing industry must shake off the tendency to narrow departmentalism…;”[5] and the place of politics and the Korean Worker Party within any developmental framework: “the party organizations in this field must radically improve their functions….”[6]

However institutionally-embedded or politically-structured the fishing industry and its productive capacity had become, it would have been decimated by the destructive period of the Korean War. It would be some years until fishing was again the focus of such direct consideration from Kim Il-sung, those tumultuous war years resolving through their apocalyptic process some of the issues mentioned by Kim in 1948. 1957’s “On the Development of the Fishing Industry” seems a very different beast. One steeped in the productive and technical intentions of Pyongyang’s post-War period of rehabilitation. This is a period, before Stalin’s death when Moscow and the USSR’s technical writ was most vital to North Korean policy, a point again confirmed by this text “we invited Soviet scientists who were engaged on maritime research in the Far East. They came to our country under an agreement reached when our Government delegation visited Moscow last year.” According to Kim these Soviet technicians and experts supported the first goal-setting focused approach from Pyongyang in the fishing sector as “they drew a conclusion… that we have enough fish resources to land some 500,000-600,000 tons a year in the next five years.”[7]

This goal for the extraction of 600,000 tons of fish annually was instantly adopted by Kim and itself embedded within all manner of developmental elements; from nutrition: “If we land 600,000 tons of fish, it will mean an average of 60 kilogrammes per person per year… [and] the people’s living standard will be improved considerably;”[8] to fishing methods and technical capacity: “[A]ll possible fishing methods including medium and small-scale, seasonal and deep sea fishing should be readily applied both in the East and the West Sea.”[9] While the strategy itself seemed wholly all inclusive it, just as its agricultural twin in the realm of grain productivity, was not however long lived. Stalin’s death in 1956 and its implications had already laid the ground work for its rapid diminution.

North Korea’s geo-political revanchement towards the more ideologically favourable winds of Maoism and the People’s Republic following the extraordinary events of Stalin’s death, Khrushchev’s rise to power and the accompanying softening of Soviet autocracy has been well documented by a number of commentators. The implications of this in the developmental field have been also noted by analysts from the period. However, the sectoral connections between Maoist principle and the rise and articulation of the Chollima concept for example and fishing and fisheries policy have not been subject to extensive focus.

Perhaps Maoist revolutionary urgency and influence can be best seen in this sector in the abrupt change of focus when it comes to research and technical development. North Korean commentators, even those not strongly concerned with developmental matters, will surely be aware of the acute importance of doing things and achieving goals in a technical or scientific manner. In 2014, images of scientists undertaking important work are a highly frequent trope of North Korean government imagery and narrative production. In the blast of ideological change brought on following Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Pyongyang’s articulation of the Chollima movement and its urgent harnessing of the power of mass movements and mass population, developmental texts echo this focus on the popular.

Kim Il Sung and Fishermen at Nampo

Kim Il-sung and Nampo Fishermen | Image: kannc.org

Fish Culture is Not Hard to Do | “On the Tasks of the Party Organizations in South Pyongan Province,” delivered to the Provincial Party Committee of that Province on the  January 7, 1960, includes the axiomatic and extraordinary statement that: “We must intensify ideological education among the fishery officials and eradicate mysticism, empiricism and all other outdated ideas so that they will improve the fishing method zealously with the attitude of masters….”[10] When reading this for the first time I wonder whether this really did constitute a repudiation of the high position of epistemic, academic community, but assertions that “Fish culture is a not a difficult job. A little effort and everyone will be able to…” suggest it might be so.[11]

As with many of the developmental strategies however there is an element of what might be termed “popular schizophrenia” about them. In an effort, again familiar to North Korean analysts everywhere and in most temporal contexts, Pyongyang’s focus attempts to be all things to all sectors at many different times and situation. Thus while empiricism is rejected during this period, it is not clear how categoric this rejection is, as reference is made to learning from scientists, although framed within a project to embed their knowledge within the institutional framework tasked with harnessing the masses. “[C]hairmen of agricultural management boards and Party committees should read a lot and learn… [about] the know-how of fish breeding and sea culture.”[12]

As the collapse of the Great Leap Forward became clear to Pyongyang, its geopolitical adherence again shifted, and the dramatic, insistent, and urgent elements within developmental praxis began to wane. Although the mid 1960s saw fishing goals reimagined upwards along with the rest of the “Six Goals” (“we should raise the production of seafood to 800,000 tons…”[13]), the sector would be quickly connected to what might be termed a more “rational” set of developmental strategies.

Akin to the fields of grain production, forestry, and many others, fishing and fisheries would be embedded in the late 1960s and 1970s in a thick set of connecting institutional repertoires. Developmental projects and strategies would have to connect with bureaucratic and institutional structures (at all levels of governance) and ideological and theoretical progress and pay homage to both the Korean Workers Party and the Korean People’s Army. “For Bringing About Rapid Progress in the Fishing Industry,” apparently articulated by Kim Il-sung in early June, 1968, is a prime and useful example.

“Developing the fishing industry is of great importance in improving the diet of the working people, particularly in providing them with protein….”[14]

Although the need for developing and primarily increasing the level of protein in North Korean’s diet has been a key narrative and impetus since virtually the moment of Liberation (indeed the current project to develop cattle breeding on Sepho’s grasslands is part of this long term developmental theme), it was particularly key in the late 1960s in many fields (and was a main theme within New Years Messages of the time). Accordingly fishing and fisheries are included within the frame of wider development.

In institutional terms, this text demands a panoply of institutions at all levels connect with each other, from the Ministry of Railways, to local party committees to the Party Central Committee. Ideological infusion is also a key element of this text: “We must launch a powerful ideological campaign amongst the fishery officials… and firmly establish the Party’s monolithic ideological system among them….”[15]

This text of course was articulated and published at what would turn out to be something of a high-water mark for North Korean internal developmental approach. While the 1970s would see Pyongyang’s conception of Juche agriculture and developmental approach spread through its external organizations throughout the non-aligned movement, structurally disruptive features of its economic approach would begin to build up to some of the stasis and strategic abandonment at the 1980 Party Congress. Fisheries policy would of course be subject to these issues and disruptions, so that in spite of the not insignificant infrastructural developments especially when it comes to fleet size and development, at sea North Korea development would suffer a similar fate.

In the next part of this series I will examine ideological, technical, and institutional approaches to piscine matters in the heady days of international connectivity in the 1970s, as well as tracking its developmental fall into the difficult 1980s and eventually the tumultuous 1990s. While the January 8 Fishery Station appears blessed with a fishy charismatic theatricality in our own day, such thematic narratological power was in definite and seemingly terminal short supply within the developmental frame of the coming era.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “On Developing The Fishing Industry on a New Basis,” Works 4 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1948), 304.

[2] Ibid., 304.

[3] Ibid.,306.

[4] Ibid.,307.

[5] Ibid.,307.

[6] Ibid.,308

[7] Kim Il-sung, “On the Development of the Fishing Industry,” Works 11 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1957), 96.

[8] Ibid.,97.

[9] Ibid.,97.

[10] Kim Il-sung, “On the Tasks of the Party Organizations in South Pyongan Province,” Works 14 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960), 38.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid.,40.

[13] Kim Il Sung, “All Efforts to Attain the Six Goals,” Works 15 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House), 332.

[14] Kim Il Sung, “For Bringing About Rapid Progress in the Fishing Industry,” Works 22 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House), 261.

[15] Ibid., 274.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (22) – 28.04.2014 – Vanadium and Socialism: Rare Earth Prospecting, Politics, and History in North Korea

Mining-in-North-Korea

Mining in the era of Songun | Image : Rodong Sinmun

Vanadium and Socialism: Rare Earth Prospecting, Politics, and History in North Korea

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

When the faintly mysterious private equity vehicle SRE Minerals Ltd announced the creation of Pacific Century Rare Earth Mineral Limited, a joint venture with the DPRK’s Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation, in December 2013, it set the analytic cat amongst the speculative pigeons in a fashion not unfamiliar in the world of North Korean reportage.

From Yongju to Jang | The discovery and analysis of the “Yongju Deposit” accordingly to SRE, Pacific Century and other analysts could mean that North Korea sits astride some 216 million tonnes of Rare Earths (and some 5.7 million tonnes of what the report excitedly branded “the more valuable heavy rare earth elements”) worth trillions in both dollars and geo-strategic import. If realized, the deposit would make North Korea one of the richest nations in the neighborhood, radically alter the market for Rare Earths, impacting enormously on its key players (namely the United States and China), and serve as a massive financial reserve for the North Korean government, one that could conceivably underpin its ideological and social system without reform in perpetuity.

All this sparked confusion, exasperation, intrigue and disbelief in almost equal measure. However, it was quickly overtaken by an event that it could even have spurred: the execution of Jang Song-taek. Of course, the death and narrative obliteration of Uncle Jang and his group remains opaque, and it is neither my desire nor inclination to assert direct causality where none can be established. Nevertheless, the co-option and control of similar developmental deals by Jang’s “clique” (if such a thing even existed), was one key rationale behind the assertion of his ‘criminal’ nature. Either way, the precipitous collapse of Jang set analytic tongues wagging in extremis, and quickly diminished interest in geologic exploitation.

As a result, the veracity of this enormous resource was never established, nor were the tools for such checks ever provided. SRE and Pacific Century’s online presence bears all the hallmarks of esoteric speculative exercise: the logic underlying some of the claims seems akin to asserting that because a similar geological formation to the north-west, within the territory of the PRC, holds reserves of some Rare Earths, such spaces in North Korea must do so as well. Thus, though this essay is no exercise in geologic debunking or revelation, I am suggesting that precisely this type of verification work is necessary, and intend to analyze the historical narrative and materiel available in order to at least underpin part of any future exercise of this nature.

While skepticism vis-a-vis SRE Minerals and the Yongju Deposit is wise, that is of course not to say that geological prospecting and fanaticism are by any means radical concepts for Pyongyang-based resource managers and mineral policymakers. Like most developmental sectors in North Korea, geological prospecting, and even the search for Rare Earths and other rare materials, has a far longer narrative tail than one might imagine.

KIM IL SUNG DOWN THE MINES

Giving Definite Priority to Geological Prospecting | Image: Willisms.com

Narratives of Geological Prospecting | “On Giving Definite Priority to Geological Prospecting,” a speech given by Kim Il-sung in mid May 1961, is a key exemplar. It is not, however, the foundational document in the sector. For one thing, 1958’s dissatisfying “Tasks of the Party Organisation in Ryanggang Province” is referred to in the text of the speech itself: “In particular, great successes have been made since the discussion of the measures to improve prospecting in 1958….”[1] It is also placed in the lee of a great North Korean extension of geodesic mapping and surveying, by which “solid foundations” have been laid “… for the development of more mineral resources during the Seven-Year Plan and for an all-out geological survey in the coming years….”[2]

While centralized, long term planning may not be as overt in the era of SRE Minerals and the Yongju Deposit, it would be strange if Pyongyang’s institutions did not consider the same type of developmental focus a key part of the economic stratagem of the Byungjin era. In 1961, central planning was very much the key vehicle in North Korea, and Kim Il-sung placed geological prospecting well within the framework of the first Seven-Year Plan. Apparently, geologic prospecting had hitherto been achieved through intense focus on the immediate and short term, but a position within the Plan was deemed vital for the development of a more holistic production and research agenda: “Just as the State Planning Commission plans for the immediate period ahead and for the long-term period separately, so the geological prospecting sector must do both its immediate and long term surveys zealously.”[3]

Joint Ventures and the General Bureau |It is intriguing to note the peculiar organization of SRE’s ambitions for extraction and prospecting in the Yongju Deposit so far as institutional and narrative structures are concerned . Pacific Century Limited represents the externally recognizable manifestation of capitalist expectation, the “Joint Venture,” or JV; however, twinned with SRE is a North Korean agency called Korean Natural Resource Trading Corporation. No doubt this corporation is an extension of a yet still more labyrinthine institutional structure in the Pyongyang governance ecosystem; organization themes that were equally apparent in 1961. It was vital in Kim Il-sung’s conception for geological prospecting to be institutionally embedded and have the necessary connections with the Korean Workers Party. Thus, not only should “party guidance of the prospecting sector… be strengthened” but, in fact, “… the whole system of Party organizations in the prospecting sector should be reshaped to strengthen Party guidance for this sphere….”[4] This reshaping involved extending connections with youth organizations and provincial party structures, but also the development of “a political bureau” within the central institution of the sector, “The General Bureau of Geology.”

“The General Bureau of Geology,” which reported to the “Heavy Industry Commission,” had also to be well structured and institutionally partitioned so as allow for effective commissioning and execution of strategies and goals; it should be “broken down in squadrons and further into teams.” However, institutional organization and reorganization should not become the key and end goal of the sector: “… the organizational system must not be too complex. Excessive sub-division might complicate work rather than facilitate it….”[5]

From Nickel and Gold to Vanadium and Mercury | The output of this system and its institutional structure were of course to be vital, not only to the productive and developmental goals of the first Seven-Year Plan, but also, as is certainly the case for SRE and the Yongju Deposit, as far as the financial possibilities of the output of all three were concerned. Kim Il-sung in 1961 asserted for example, “You must strive to find out nickel ore. Nickel is valuable; it is indispensable for the development of the chemical and machine industries” Because of the resource’s apparent importance to North Korean industrial development, “We must not export nickel ore, no matter how we are hard pressed for foreign currency.” Instead, taking advantage of the outside world’s perceived decadence, proclivities and fragility, “We should mine a good quantity of gold and sell it rather than selling nickel. Gold is something that should be mined quickly and sold before the capitalist world completely breaks down….”[6]

PRE-REVOLUTIONARY-MINING-AT-SUAN

 

This expansive, in depth understanding of extractive and geologic possibility in the mining sector of the late 1950s and early 1960s contains no trace of the Lanthanides, Yttrium, Cerium, or any of the other Rare Earths that SRE, Pacific Century and the Korean Natural Resource Trading Corporation will be hunting for as their instruments and equipment arrays traverse and prod the Yonju Deposit. Perhaps it is too early in North Korea’s scientific development for an awareness of such elements (Dysprosium, for example, was not even isolated until the 1950s). However, is it not the expansiveness and scope of potential and possibility that is the most revealing, and similar to the present day? The focus, the resolution of extraction problems for elements such as Mercury (“Mercury is found in our country, but we still cannot extract it by ourselves because we have not got the know-how….”[9]) will surely be repeated in SRE’s experience. Perhaps the optimism of revolutionary possibility has faded in the meantime, but not by any means the desire for leveraging the resources that can be extracted.

With the desire for extractive success in place, no doubt it will be an interesting experience for the (one hopes) optimistic and well leveraged participants of SRE, and for any brave investors who may follow them. I do not mean to imply the impossibility of their goal, although a warning in the shape of the Orascom and Koryolink enterprise may remind them of the matter of “extracting” profit from the North Korean domain. Rather, Kim Il-sung’s early demand that North Korean geologic prospectors seek the rare and unexpected does perhaps point to possibility buried deep in the rocks of Yongju. However, I am biding my time and undertaking long-term research and analysis, the better to demonstrate both historical and future extractive potential within Pyongyang’s domain.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “On Giving Definite Priority to Geological Prospecting,” Works 15 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 92.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 94.

[4] Ibid., 101.

[5] Ibid., 101.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Kim Il-sung, “Tasks of the Party Organizations in Ryanggang Province,” Works 12 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958), 228.

[8] Kim Il-sung, “On Giving Definite Priority to Geological Prospecting,” Works 15 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 96.

[9] Kim Il-sung, “On Further Developing the Mining Industry,” Works 16 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), 320.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (21) – 30.03.2014 – “The Theatre of Farm Fields:” Kim Jong-un on Subworkteam Leaders

Subworkteam Leaders and Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un applauds the Agricultural Subworkteam Leaders | Image: Rodong Sinmun

“The Theatre of Farm Fields:” Kim Jong-un on Subworkteam Leaders

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Having directed his very first publication towards the subject of land management early in 2012, Kim Jong-un has emerged as quite the unlikely agricultural theorist. With the impending April anniversary of his grandfather’s 1964 “Rural Theses” looming, Kim published an extensive new text on February 7 entitled, “Let Us Bring About Innovations in Agricultural Production under the Unfurled Banner of the Socialist Rural Theses.”

Kim Jong-un’s New Years Message (and extensive local reportage addressing it and meetings connected to it) vigorously asserted the historical importance of the 1964 Rural Theses, and their continued relevance under Kim Jong-un in 2014. However, this voluminous wave of material has not gone into much practical detail: What, if anything, do the lauds of the 1964 Rural Theses indicate about the new direction, if any, North Korean agriculture is taking in the near term?

Fortunately, the text of Kim’s recent publication, delivered at a national meeting of “Subworkteam Leaders,” offers this detail in spades.

The Rural Theses and the Three Revolutions | Echoing a similar meeting in 1965 addressing issues from the Rural Theses, Kim Jong-un eagerly follows in the frame of reference created by his grandfather. To wit: The key feature of the 1964 Rural Theses was their articulation of the “Three Revolutions” concept in terms of agriculture and rural development. Having essentially guided practice in this sector for very nearly fifty years, one might expect the “Ideological, Cultural and Technical Revolutions” in the countryside to have at least met, if not surpassed their aims.

However, as readers will already be aware, themes and assertions in North Korea exist only partly for their potential to manifest in reality; they are also possessed of an equally vital quality; namely, their value as repetitive tropes and theatrical elements upon which further development and ideological extrapolation can be hung. Kim Jong-un’s text fits neatly within this tradition of re-articulation.

According to Kim, it is not that that developments undertaken under the banner of the Three Revolutions since 1964 have been unsuccessful; in fact, quite the contrary:

The ideological and cultural revolutions have been promoted successfully in the countryside, with the result that the ideological and spiritual qualities of our agricultural working people have been transformed remarkably and a great development has also been achieved in the realm of cultural life in the countryside.

Furthermore, as a result of the undertakings of the Rural Theses, guided by the Three Revolutions strategy, the countryside and rural agriculture today represent “clear proof of the validity and vitality of the socialist rural theses advanced by President Kim Il Sung.” Kim Jong-un continues: “As they have the immortal programme for solving the rural question, our people have been able to create a brilliant example of socialist rural construction….”

Ideological Connectivity: From Three Revolutions to Kimilsungism | Elsewhere, Kim connects up the dots of the Three Revolutions concept, its strategic interplay with the Rural Theses, and the entire gamut of North Korean ideological development from Juche to Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism to Songun. These theoretical elements have long informed not only the Three Revolutions but also the wider structures of rural policy. Naturally, these involve some charismatic retrospection on the persons of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the transfigurative capture of authority by Kim Jong-un is also made explicit by the existence of the new text.

Subworkteam Leaders and Kim Jong-un - LARGE PHOTO

Kim Jong-un and Subworkteam Leaders | Image: Rodong Sinmun

In the lee of these historical connections, what is it that the youngest Kim gifts to the cause of agricultural development in the twenty first century, especially in light of the Three Revolutions and the Rural Theses? The text is content heavy on this matter; content that is framed in the three themes of the original Three Revolutions, and, more specifically, within at least five current projects.

Three Revolutions and Culture | Firstly and perhaps least defined of all the areas in his work, Kim Jong-un asserts the necessity for a revival of the Three Revolutions concept itself, addressing its “cultural” aspects. Although not extensively articulated in the original Rural Theses and their outworkings, in fact very much the straggler in the race, Kim appears to see culture as key to their popular reception:

If we are to successfully build a socialist civilized country, which our people are desirous of, and ultimately solve the rural question, we should step up the cultural revolution in the countryside.

Kim does not lay out a detailed definition of what culture actually means, but we might assume that it is decidedly not a “culture” of consumption, leisure or individualism. It seems safe also to assume that it exists within the frame of reference of the effusive, diffuse yet all encompassing “culture” of politics in North Korea. Kim, outlining how the general population will interact with this cultural conception, does so in ways that might be understood conventionally:

[C]onditions should be created so that they can enjoy a cultural and emotional life to their heart’s content and, by laying out the rural villages in a more cultured way, it should turn them into a civilized and beautiful socialist fairyland.

The emphasis on physical structures and development approach is familiar, but matters of a cultural nature for those in the rural environment are to be understood in frames connected to this emphasis and to wider historical narratives of industry:

[T]he countryside, upholding the slogan of making all the people well versed in science and technology, should actively propagate scientific and technological knowledge, so that all the agricultural working people can learn advanced farming techniques and operate modern technical means skillfully….

Perhaps “culture” can only be understood within a North Korean context from a perspective of its contribution to industry and production. After all, this is a section of writing in which the only concrete piece of policy present refers to what is termed “the study-while-you-work system,” which combines everyday political inculcation and articulation with more conventional strategies of re-training..

Subworkteams and the Agricultural Moderne | Moving from the first theme of the text to the technical revolution in the second, an area that is more familiar, Kim restates aspirations that have been present since the dawn of time in North Korea:

In line with the demands of the era of science and technology, the informatics era, it should promote the rural technological revolution, thus making the material and technological foundations of the rural economy firmer and steadily putting agriculture on a higher scientific and modern footing….

One is here tempted to make the obvious clichéd critique that, considering the fifty year history of the Rural Theses and the more general degree of focus on both science and technological development, how is it that the rural economy and agriculture aren’t already both highly scientific and modern in outlook? However, Kim’s text is a great deal more strategic in this respect.

Firstly, it problematizes the issue within a framework of productivity and resource generation, connecting rural work to the wider problems of North Korea’s geopolitical position:

[T]he most important task facing the agricultural sector at present is to do farm work well so as to radically increase agricultural production. The agricultural front is an outpost in the battle of defending socialism and a major thrust of the effort in building our country into a socialist economic giant….

Kim undiplomatically asserts that it is North Korea’s enemies who are attempting to undermine socialism and Songun by intervening in the country’s productive ability. While this is doubtful in the agricultural sector, economic sanctions and restrictions placed on North Korean trade do both undermine its economic performance and contribute to worse economic and social metrics overall. In this regard, North Korea’s woeful interactions with sanctions politics are not so different from those elsewhere in the world (Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran currently and Cuba, to name but three).

But most importantly here, Kim identifies a number of key areas vis the re-envisioning of the Technical Revolution, areas through which these threats to North Korean productivity are to be combatted.

Paying Attention to Seeds | Through the lens of the “Juche Farming Method,” which all of these strategies apparently form constituent parts, the agricultural sector is to consider firstly the successes and productivity of plant and seed husbandry:

[T]he main thing in farming is seed. The agricultural sector should hold the seed as the main thing and pay primary attention to solving the seed problem…

Long-term analysts of the DPRK agricultural sector acknowledge an ongoing North Korean commitment to research in this area. The plethora of research institutions addressing various agricultural sectors has been covered extensively by Sino-NK in the past. Kim’s focus on the bureaucratic background to the solution to this problem is therefore not entirely surprising:

[M]odern seed processing factories should be built as required by the age of scientific farming, and a system established whereby all the seeds are screened, sorted out and coated in a comprehensive manner and supplied to cooperative farms….

A commitment to radically improve the nature of agricultural production and to more properly site and locate different crop species or farming methods is also not new to North Korean agricultural narratives (“… crops and varieties should be distributed on the principle of sowing the right crop on the right soil and at the right time… they should be distributed in line with the regional characteristics and natural and climatic conditions…”).[1] Following in the footsteps of Judith Shapiro on agricultural practices under Maoism I, too, have recounted many similar calls in North Korean developmental narratology. Kim Il-sung often articulated the need for rural provinces or local party organisations to engage in more suitable agricultural development. So Kim Jong-un’s presence in the agricultural debate is hardly new, and might even have been expected. But what is new in the 2014 text–or at least moderately new- is the commitment to what might be termed “low impact” or “sustainable” modes of development:

At present, the agricultural sector is researching and introducing a variety of farming methods that boost the yield drastically with less seeds, work force and farming materials, and they should widely be popularized… organic farming should be encouraged proactively… the world’s agricultural development is tending towards farming with bio-fertilizer, not chemical fertilizer…

Subworkteams, Three Revolutions and Sepho | No doubt Pyongyang’s ‘Organic Agricultural Development Association’ will have a key part to play in any practical strategy emerging from Kim’s call, but in truth the focus on organic and low-input agricultural practice has a history, following the intervention of both Kim Jong-il and development agencies of the United Nations in the late 1990s. Production is seen as key to state aims whose focus is food supply. Equally, productivity underpins those projects that generate volume growth in cattle and other forms of stock breeding. Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project is a perfect example of the practical implications of this.

The focus on Sepho in 2013/2014 is at odds with agricultural approaches of recent years; namely, those ascribing importance to singularly intensive of resource strategies of food production. This conception addressing and supporting crop diversity presents seemingly an element of developmental and strategic contradiction :

[T]he agricultural sector should improve the structure of agricultural production to be a grain-oriented one in order to boost food production to the maximum… we should reduce the area of cultivation of non-cereal crops as much as possible and expand the area of rice and maize cultivation….

This momentary confusion precedes the third key theme of the Three Revolutions, and, presumably given the audience, the one that Kim Jong-un is most concerned to articulate. North Korean developmental narratives and reality are of course littered with references to past ideological agendas and institutional structures, the Three Revolutions movement being a case in point: at one time it was surrounded by a plethora of organisations and theoretic frameworks (from the Taean Work Method to the Three Revolution Teams). This text was apparently delivered to what is termed the “National Conference of Subworkteam Leaders”. While Subworkteam Leaders have been discussed and mentioned a number of times before in North Korean literature and were even included in texts from Kim Il-sung addressing the Rural Theses in 1965, this text features an extensive re-articulation of their role in the agricultural bureaucracy.

Subworkteam is the grass-roots unit in the countryside which occupies an important position in the development of the rural economy and agricultural production.

Only when subworkteams enhance their role is it possible to develop the socialist rural economy and bring about innovations in agricultural production.

Socialist Principles of Distribution | This frankly quite dramatic statement is followed by delving into the minutiae of what appears to be the structural impetus behind this new enhanced role, which involves the introduction of smaller teams. Much has been made of the possibility for economic improvement in North Korea during the Kim Jong-un era. Interested parties instantly grasp any glimpse of a reformist trend or strategy, and extensive wishful thinking often follows. However, North Korea’s agricultural sector has proven to run counter to general economic themes in the past; following Liberation, Pyongyang presided over a virtually mixed system of rural landownership until the late 1950s. At the time, collectivity, co-operatism and small private land plots existed together (although the Three Revolutions Movement’s original intention was the eradication of much of this).

The text of Kim’s letter appears to outline a compensation and food distribution system which deconstructs the common perception of North Korea’s equalizing system (though of course it has long been acknowledged that, when it comes to Public Distribution System rations, those deemed to be doing work of a more authentic or useful type receive greater quantities):

[W]hat is important in operating the Subworkteam management system is to strictly abide by the socialist principle of distribution… equalitarianism in distribution has nothing to do with the socialist principle of distribution…

Incentivization and the “Rural Hardcore” | What is outlined is essentially a compensatory system for the agricultural sector for Subworkteam Leaders, one that includes variability dependent on need, effort, and government agenda, and which aims to generate the potential for fiduciary and value-led incentives to form part of those worker’s lives:

Subworkteams should assess the daily work-points of their members… according to the quantity and quality of the work they have done… they should, as required by the socialist principle of distribution, share out their grain yields to their members mainly in kind according to their work-points after counting out the amounts set by the state….

Beyond this surprising, potentially counter-productive element in such a controlled and resource scarce economic environment as North Korea and its agricultural sector, Subworkteams and the Subworkteam leaders are to contribute extensively to the theatre of rural development and party connection in their locales. They are to be ideological and practical exemplars:

Subworkteam leaders… are the rural hardcore on whom our Party relies in solidifying its socialist rural position…. How they perform their duties decides whether the Party’s agricultural policies are implemented or not….

Just as family and home environments were inculcated into the theatrics of development during the “Patriotism Begins with Love of Courtyard” last year, Subworkteam leaders are to adopt similar filial approaches and make deeply familial and personal connections:

Subworkteam leaders should become “elder brothers” or “elder sisters” of their subworkteam members who love and look after them as they would do their own blood relations….

Ultimately, it seems the importance and value of Subworkteam Leaders and their Subworkteams as revolutionary models and exemplary participants within the rural, developmental and agricultural field lies beyond their simple ability to engage and connect bureaucratic themes. This value is not measured in the efficiency gains that the Subworkteams might engender, even if it does lead to better land usage, increased grain yields or greater over-all productivity. Instead we again see the tendency of politics and the ideological to manifest at the bureaucratic and structural level in North Korea as a sort of theatrical charisma. While Subworkteams have a name that would set no stage alight, they appear key to North Korea’s charismatic strategies of development, Kim Jong-un himself asserting that Subworkteam leaders:

Should move the theatre of their political work to the farm fields and, through intensive motivational work, inspire the farmers there with zeal and vigour and make all farm fields seethe with the struggle for increased grain production….


[1] See, for example, Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002),

[2] All direct quotations in this essay are taken from the folowing: Kim Jong-un, “Letter to Participants in National Conference of Subworkteam Leaders in Agricultural Sector,” Rodong Sinmun, February 7, 2014.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (20) – 12.02.2014 – Raising a Fiercer Wind: Meetings and Messages

Subwork team visit Mangyongdae

Sub-workteam heads make dynastic and 1964 connections at Mangyongdae. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Raising a Fiercer Wind: Meetings and Messages

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

During the past week we have worked here with you. We attended the Party cell meetings and the Party committee meeting and heard the speeches of many comrades….[1]

With 2014 more than one month old, perhaps there is now space and breadth to consider the impact on the ground of Kim Jong-un’s New Years’ Message. In matters environmental and developmental, the speech marked out the institutional approach for the year to come. My previous essay, “Raising a Fierce Wind: Back to the Future in the New Year’s Message,” asserted that the most intriguing developmental element of Kim Jong-un’s text was its statement of the essential importance to North Korean developmental approach of 1964’s Rural Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country on the occasion of that text’s fiftieth anniversary.

Following the publication of the 2014 New Year’s Message there have been many distinctly 21st century issues for commentators to ponder (new versions of North Korea’s Red Star OS and painted imagery featuring the ideologically sound children of Pyongyang brandishing tablet computers to give just two examples), and this essay will delve into the reportage addressing the myriad outcomes that it sparked. But, just as Kim Jong-un did with this years’ message, perhaps we, too, should begin by looking back?

Go, Go, Songun Tablet Computer! | In 1965 there was no Internet, no Rodong Sinmun homepage, no KCNA updates, nor the combined efforts of the public Kremlinologists who make up the North Korean twittersphere to keep the analyst deep in the loop of the minutiae of responses to that year’s New Year’s Message and its focus on embedding the Rural Theses. Even the CIA’s finest in the Defence Technical Information Center could offer little more than a snapshot of goings on in Pyongyang, beyond the fact of the message’s existence.

Therefore, for depth we must rely on the text of Kim Il-sung’s Works, with all its retrospective and ideological biases. 1965’s New Year’s Message, just like its contemporary counterpart, makes great play upon the Theses:

Last year saw great progress in bringing into effect the Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our County in the agricultural sector…in accordance with the spirit of the theses on the rural question the Party and the state gave continuous and effective assistance to the rural areas and provided cooperative farms and their members with great benefits.

And:

As can be seen socialist rural construction in our country is being successfully carried out by the power assistance of the state and the devoted endeavour of the farmers…. [2]

1965’s other great focus was developing capacity in the refining and extraction of iron ore to support the industrial agenda underpinning the 1st Seven Year Plan (1965 being its fifth year), whereby:

In order to reach the targets in pig iron and steel, the most important thing is develop the ferrous metal industry quickly….[3]

Accordingly, those events commemorated in Works (Volume 19) in January 1965 connect with industrial capacity and production; one must wait until February 1965 for a specific event intended to embed the tenets of the Rural Theses that year. But what an event, readers, what an event!

RURAL THESES POSTER

A classic of the genre of Rural Theses posters. | Image: Cedar Lounge Revolution

Fertilizer is Rice and Rice is Socialism | The Enlarged Meeting of the Party Committee of Hungnam Fertilizer Factory on February 9, 1965, surely cannot have been understood at the time as particularly different from similar events and mass collections of interested, inspired and revolutionary participants during this period of North Korean history. Apart from the special excitement generated by the presence of Kim Il-sung, it sounds in its introduction, the very model of such meetings:

During the past week we have worked here with you. We attended the Party cell meetings and the factory Party committee meeting and heard the speeches of many comrades. At these meetings we were able to see that all the Party members and employees of the Hungnam Fertilizer Factory are deeply inspired to implement the decision of the Tenth Plenary Meeting of the Fourth Central Committee of the Party.[4]

However it is at this unassuming event that Kim Il-sung chose to connect the focus of the Rural Theses with another now-famous phrase of the period: “Fertilizer means rice, and rice, socialism.”

One day this saying would lead to North Korea applying the highest concentration of fertilizer on earth (some two tonnes/ha by the late 1970s). But in 1965, this political, ideological formula simply served to underline the practical importance of the Rural Theses which had been articulated in the previous year:

Now the world’s people are closely watching how we are putting into practice the Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in our Country. We must put the tasks advanced in the rural theses into effect with all our might and main….[5]

This is seemingly a vital national task to be undertaken, and especially so given the presumed global audience. However, the setting of the party or workforce meeting is also key to both its narrative importance and practical utility.

Kim Il-sung, having introduced the necessity of the tasks to the meeting, now continues. “Here you have a heavy responsibility,” he emphasizes, thus rescaling the sphere of the tasks and their achievement down to the level of the group in this particular meeting, and therefore by extension to every such meeting where his writ might run. As I argued in 2013 with respect to Sepho, such methods are still being used by the DPRK. Kim continues:

Deeply aware of the political and economic significance of fertilizer production, you must try hard to fulfill the assignments of increasing the production of fertilizer which you yourselves have determined….[6]

Given Kim Il-sung’s approach in 1965, would readers be surprised if we were to find similar re-scaling and embedding in the events and reportage surrounding this years’ New Years Message and its revitalization of the role and place of the Rural Theses within both the general and specific narratology of North Korea? I suggest not.

Scaling 2.0 | As external observers subjected to only the edited, directed narrative flow emerging from the North Korean information-complex, we only receive a fraction of the story. We cannot know the full, livid urgency of Kim Jong-un’s call to developmental reconfiguration, nor can we ever really know the impact this urgency and direction might have upon the private, quieter spaces of the Pyongyang home, the Kangyye forest, or the fields outside of Wonsan.

While I would never assert the need to accept North Korean state narratives and contemporary mythos (or those of any state) at face value, events focused on narrative do occur, and form the part that we can witness.  More than that, they also form the narrative that other North Koreans witness, through television and radio broadcasts, newspaper publications, hearsay, or perhaps later in the formal modality of a charismatically Kimist text.

Pyongyang City Rally 06.01.2014

The biggest and most colorful: Pyongyang City rally on January 6, 2014. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

In the case of 2014 it would only be a matter of days before narratives focused on Kim Jong-un’s New Years Message and its connection to the Rural Theses would manifest.  Unlike in 1965, they have been so profusely reported as to generate enough material for an academic monograph, so I can only recount some of the manifestations, within which, as ever, it is important for the reader to follow the element of scale and scaling.

January 6, for instance, sees one of the first, a “national” level events. Rodong Sinmun recounts it under the headline “Pyongyang City Rally Held to Vow to Implement Tasks Set Forth in New Year Address,” though its audience must surely be beyond Pyongyang itself. Two elder statesmen, Pak Pong-ju and Kim Yong-nam, are in attendance, as are a great number of other dignitaries. The text of the address made at the rally makes a number of connections back and forth along narrative lines:

The New Year Address serves as an encouraging banner instilling conviction in rosy future of Kim Il Sung’s Korea and revolutionary pride into all service personnel and people and important guidelines showing a shortcut to fresh leap forward and innovations. The entire Party, the whole army and all the people waged an all-out offensive in support of the Party’s new line of developing the two fronts simultaneously and thus achieved brilliant successes in building a thriving socialist country and defending socialism last year, he noted. These achievements are the precious fruition of Kim Jong Un’s rare wisdom and outstanding leadership ability and his warm love for the people….

After corralling Kim Jong-il into its charismatic triadic, this event, in that most urban and, by North Korean standards, cosmopolitan of locales, renders deep connection with the agricultural themes of the New Year’s Message:

Speeches were made by Ri Chol Man, vice-premier who doubles as minister of Agriculture, Tong Jong Ho, minister of Construction and Building-Materials Industry, Mun Chun Gwang, researcher at Kim Il Sung University, and Choe Myong Hak, chairman of the Kim Chaek University of Technology Committee of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. They vowed to make a decisive turn in agricultural production this year to demonstrate the validity and vitality of the socialist rural theses. They noted that a drive would be intensified to carry out the tasks set forth by Kim Jong Un in his New Year Address….

Provincial Rally 06.01.2014

One of a number of smaller provincial rallies held on January 6 and 7. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

On January 6 and January 7, meanwhile, events marking the New Years Message were held in provincial centres, often the sites of those epistemic communities that formed the focus of my previous essay.

While not as grand as the one in Pyongyang, nonetheless these events seemed replete with institutional and political authority (“Present there were officials of local party, power and economic organs, working people’s organizations, industrial establishments, farms and universities, working people, youth and students”).

The narrative presented was equally replete with connectivity, though perhaps reader and  viewer might sense a change in tone, away from the comprehensive and towards specificity of purpose, those specificities important to agricultural, developmental spaces, and a greater sense of assertion when it comes to the Rural Theses themselves:

Reporters and speakers underscored the need to glorify this as a year of grandiose struggle, a year of sea changes by devotedly implementing the important tasks set forth in the historic New Year Address of Kim Jong Un. They called upon the officials and people in the agricultural field to bring about a decisive turn in agricultural production this significant year marking the 50th anniversary of the Theses on the Socialist Rural Question made public by President Kim Il Sung.

Union of Agricultural Workers - 07.01.2014

Union of Agricultural Workers on January 7th 2014. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

January 7 saw a meeting of the Union of Agricultural Workers, at which the process of embedding the narrative within the Rural Theses home sector began (the meeting was even held at Sariwon City’s model Migok Co-operative Farm). While a grand affair for the agricultural sector, it is clear that the narratives are becoming more practical in nature and in a sense less connected to other thematic elements of Kim Jong-un’s text:

They underscored the need for the young people in the field of agriculture to make contributions to attaining the goal of grain production set by the WPK without fail in this significant year by playing a pioneer’s role in bringing about a signal boost in agricultural production. They pledged to bring about a revolutionary turn in the agricultural production in this significant year marking the 50th anniversary of the Theses on the Socialist Rural Question, true to the noble intention of Kim Jong Un.

This embedding, specifizing process continued on January 14 as local meetings of agriculturalists and those involved in developmental process are recounted, their focus becoming ever more specific in their agricultural connectivity:

They underscored the need for those in agricultural field to apply scientific methods in farming, increase the proportion of mechanization in it, produce quality compost and thus contribute to increasing agricultural production of the country in this significant year marking the 50th anniversary of the Theses on Socialist Rural Question published by President Kim Il Sung.

Atomized and Agricultural | Finally, the process came to focus on one agriculturalist, Ji Chol-hyang, who is reported to be the work-team leader of Jangchon Vegetable Farm in the Sadong District of Pyongyang. On the January 17, in a recounting of an on-the spot guidance visit to that very farm by Kim Il-sung, apparently in the year of the Rural Theses’ first articulation, Ji gives what is essentially an extraordinary summary of narrative themes, connecting agriculture, Songun Politics, national reunification and the charisma of Kimism all in one masterclass in scaling:

The destiny of a nation is just the destiny of the individual and the life of the individual lies in the life of the nation. Deprived of the country and national sovereignty, one is reduced to a slave little better than a dog in a house of death. This is a truth the past history of our nation teaches bitterly. If one tolerates foreign interference, one will face only permanent division and fratricide. The most important issue in defending peace and achieving peaceful reunification is to resolutely check and frustrate the confrontation and war maneuvers of warmongers at home and abroad.

Reunification is the only way of our nation to survive and prosper. We will supply more vegetables to Pyongyang citizens and thus fulfill our duty to hit a main target for economic construction and the improved livelihood of people. In this way, we will clearly prove the validity and vitality of the socialist rural theses.

Ji Chol-hyang 17.01.2014

Ji Chol-hyang | Image: KCNA

Ji’s extensive quote requires an entire essay’s worth of unpacking by itself, and alas that is not something I intend to do. Its incorporation of multiple narrative, political and ideological themes should be apparent to the reader. Ji’s assertions make it possible to glimpse the Rural Theses through another lens, one in which they are not simply a set of developmental tracts; rather, they are the nourishing substrate in which North Korean socialism, charismatic Kimism and its political and ideological manifestations grow and develop.

This development applies not just at the grand, national level of Pyongyang’s vistas, boulevards and monuments, but provincially and, even less grandly but perhaps most profoundly of all, at the level of the local, individualist.

If 2014 is to be marked not just by the meta narratives of charismatic Kimism but by the more practical dictates of the Rural Theses, it will not simply be because of the assertions of Kim Jong-un; rather, as in 1964 on the publication of the original Theses, it will be because of a strangely unifying, thematic connectivity derived from a repertoire of scaling and re-scaling in which the national, the provincial and the personal have a fluidity and interchangeability that is at the root of Kimist charisma.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “Fertilizer Immediately Means Rice and Rice Socialism,” Works 19 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1965), 144.

[2] Kim Il-sung, “New Years Address,” Works 19 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1965), 3.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Kim Il-sung, “Fertilizer Immediately Means Rice and Rice Socialism,” Works 19 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1965), 141.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Ibid.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (19) – 30.01.2014 – Framing Epistemic Communities in North Korea: From Fungus to Botanical Gardens

epistemic communities

Foreign epistemic communities visit Pyongyang Botanical Gardens. AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy Visit 2012 | Image: Jonguo Liu/AAAS

Framing Epistemic Communities in North Korea: From Fungus to Botanical Gardens

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Mushroom grows in abundance in the mushroom cultivation ground in tiers at Mangyongdae District Nursery School. The school has picked up large quantities of mushrooms every year for 10-odd years from the area of 60 square meters.” (Rodong Sinmun, January 18, 2014)

January 18, 2014 was not an exceptional day in North Korea by anybody’s standards. It was not exceptional in military, economic, political, social or developmental terms, and its unexceptional nature was captured in the reporting of Rodong Sinmun and its accompanying English language website. There were stories about construction beginning on a shopping center complex in eastern Pyongyang, congratulations sent by Kim Jong-un to a citizen turning 100 years old, and a performance given by a politically inspired youth organization.

Though such reports are not exceptional for North Korea, that is not to say they would necessarily be considered normal for other nations; notably, there were two reports on fungal matters that very day. While I am sure qualitative research could be done to ascertain the facts of the matter, for once I will concede to what might be termed common sense: it is not normal for a national newspaper to cover issues relating to mushrooms and their scientific development and production.

The Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang | In North Korea, however, fungus has resurfaced in recent times as an important element of developmental possibility in Pyongyang’s matrix of aspiration. While in past years they sought to harness the folk memory of particular types of mushroom and their common geographic location so as to support diplomatic cross-border initiatives, in 2013 mushroom production, and research focused upon it, was embedded in developmental narratives of scientific capability and connected to the greater uber-narrative of “building a strong and prosperous nation.”

As these narratives are connected to reportage on scientific research, much of the material for analysis involves scientific institutions and organisations in the developmental sector. In the case of fungal science, for example, a great deal was made of the rebuilding of the Central Mushroom Institute in Pyongyang.

North Korean Mushroom Prowess, Exhibited at a Pyongyang Exhibition of New Year Posters for 2014. Image KCTV, via Adam Cathcart

North Korean mushroom prowess, exhibited at a Pyongyang exhibition of New Year posters for 2014. | Image: KCTV

There are seemingly a plethora of such institutions, with North Korea apparently possessed of a scientific/research community akin to the corona of think-tanks, consultancies and research centers surrounding Western loci of government. The tendency of the external interested observer may be to regard these as no more than meta-devices, rolled out in reportage or presentational production to add academic or intellectual legitimacy and authority to a particular new scientific or developmental theme.

In the case of the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang, while its physical image is most undoubtably real, its origins as an institution are obscure and not subject to extensive coverage in North Korean texts. Thus, its original raison d’etre is difficult to analyse. This blank slate quality is a feature shared with a number of similar institutions, but not all. This essay will attempt to identify and frame the development, both narrative and otherwise, of such educational and research institutions using an institutional and sectoral example that is much better evidenced by textual sources.

DPRK Premier Pak Bong-ju assesses dam construction on Chongchun River, January 2014. Image via Rodong Sinmun.

DPRK Premier Pak Pong-ju assesses dam construction on the Chongchun River, January 2014. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Il-sung on Hydrology and Forestry | Kim Il-sung’s text “Let us Expedite the Introduction of a Supply of Running Water” from 1973 ostensibly focuses on a sector very much of interest to this author: hydrological engineering and water supply. However, the text opens up in scope to reveal a sectoral focus that is equally interesting and loosely connected, but on the surface very different. With the words “Next, I am going to speak about the task of afforestation…” Kim abruptly shifts the text towards forestry and timber management, an area extensively covered by Sino-NK analysts and contributors (for extra reading please see the note at the conclusion of this essay).

Thereafter, Kim recounts the number of occasions on which he had placed the political or narrative focus on forestry matters, especially within local party and bureaucratic contexts. Examples include the following:

At the consultative meeting of the chairmen of the provincial people’s committees on September 5, 1962, I spoke about the need to plant the roadsides with large numbers of trees which grow quickly and thrive and are capable of protecting the roads and also of being used as raw materials for paper.[1]

And:

In my speech delivered to the officials of the Party and government bodies and social organizations in Ryanggang Province in May 1958, I told them to plant firs and white ashes widely in Ryanggang Province and undertake afforestation with definite aims under a ten-year plan.[2]

Following Kim’s extensive recantation of these developmental exemplars and moments of classic “on the spot guidance,” the section is brought to a close:

All this show that our officials still lack the Party spirit. Their Party spirit must find expression in practical deeds, not in lip service. In other words, it must be expressed in their fight to carry out Party policy….[3]

The key questions obviously being: What are the routes to this expression? How might these deeds be accomplished through that expression? And how will this expression find translation in practical policy?

Kim’s first assertion is that if party organizations had “only developed a campaign for each person to plant ten trees every year, the timber situation in our country would not have become as acute as it is now.”[4]  Therefore, the policy goal is easily accessible; resolving the timber situation, to be achieved by involving the population in planting those ten trees. What is not accessible or obvious is the route to that goal, how those trees are to be sourced, planted or managed, or indeed which and what sort or species of trees shall be planted.

Pyongyang Botanical Gardens | The solution, as one might imagine given the retrospective analytic lens bestowed on us by campaigns of charismatic Kimist policy (such as the “strong and prosperous nation” or Byungjin line) and in light of our awareness of the now-narratologically-important-again Rural Theses of 1964, is science and research. It is scientific and technical research that will set the ground for these aims and goals, harnessed and corralled into governable and management research and technical institutions. In the text, Kim lays out the connection between political goals and research locale:

[T]he officials of the Agricultural Department of the Party Central Committee have not given competent assistance to the workers of the Pyongyang Botanical Gardens who have been working very hard to develop afforestation….[5]

Alas, it is impossible to find the foundational moment of Pyongyang Botanical Gardens in the text of Kim Il-sung’s Works or any other North Korean collection. My own extensive research into narratives of North Korean forestry development reveals a role for Pyongyang Botanical Gardens, but sites the sector’s geographical source in Ryanggang Province (in 1958) and finds the foundational institutions of practical policy implementation in what would become known as “Afforestation Stations.”

While this is not the first time that North Korean narratives fail to be entirely cohesive or linear, this apparent failure does not matter in this instance as these Afforestation Stations and the institutional structure surrounding them mirror the wider framework outlined by Kim Il-sung in his later document. Kim presents the Botanical Gardens as a space in which political research and practicality are combined:

Over the years, the workers of the botanical gardens have done a great deal of work to increase the forest resources of the country. I have already said more than once that the dawn redwood owes its present wide distribution in our country to the efforts of these workers….[6]

Forestry, the KPA and Songun Politics | Such a space of research and academic production cannot function on its own, however, especially when its goals are practical output and policy fulfilment. Therefore, Kim lays out an institutional framework in which the Gardens will be supported, the fruits of their work widely propagated, and their achievements connected to broader streams of charismatic politics and narrative. For example, once preserved through management and research undertaken at the Gardens, seedlings must be dispersed throughout the nation, but care should come from the epistemic community from which they were initially sourced:

 Technical guidance for the cultivation of seedlings should be the responsibility of the higher agricultural schools and the Pyongyang Botanical Gardens….[7]

These seedlings and the practical process for their care and dissemination should also connect with that most efficient and resourced of North Korean institutions, the KPA:

The People’s Army must also grow seedlings. Some botanists will have to be sent to the People’s Army to give it technical guidance….[8]

Although this document was only written in 1974–well before either the current ideological frameworks of Songun or the Byungjin line–it is intriguing to see the primary status of the KPA within this sector and its connections elsewhere in the North Korean economy, distant from military capability or hardware. Military institutions even have capacity goals to meet:

The People’s Army and the Ministry of Public Security must also start an extensive campaign to plant trees. The People’s Army must plant 15,000 hectares of forests every year….[9]

This is further demonstrated by the logistical support directed at the work of the Botanical Garden, by what in the 1970’s was an institutional affiliate to the KPA, the Administration Council:

[T]he botanical gardens are asking for work hands, lorries and tractors which are needed for the cultivation of seedlings. The Administration Council must comply with their request soon. In addition approximately 40 hectares of land in the vicinity of the botanical gardens will have to be transferred to them….[10]

Forestry Policy and Provincial Praxis | With the support of the KPA, the Administration Council and other logistical providers, afforestation and forestry research could spread beyond its initiating root institution and epistemic community within the Botanical Gardens and the “higher agricultural schools.” Kim Il-sung envisages the practice and praxis inspired by the Botanical Gardens being embedded within provincial spaces:

The Pyongyang Botanical Gardens must see that these seedlings are grown in North and South Hwanghae Provinces and Kaesong City and also widely in Wonsan….[11]

Educational and technical institutions within those provincial spaces thus established further connectivity with the project agenda and approach, in particular Wonsan University of Agriculture, essentially re-embedding it with epistemic communities of researchers.

Ultimately this framework of policy development foundation, research praxis, output dissemination, logistical inculcation and finally provincial connection is one repeated in numerous North Korean developmental sectors. Many agricultural and developmental exemplars can be extracted from the literature, from sectors as diverse as tidal or coastal reclamation, stock breeding or pomiculture , all following the same strategies and connective routes. Although the foundational moment for mushroom development in North Korea is not evidenced by any available documentation, the emergence of the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang can be seen within the same developmental institutional context. It is essentially the core of an epistemic community focused on fungus.

This community is driven and directed by political and ideological direction from a central government institution or impetus, and utilized at key moments, such as during the “sunshine policy” policy period of momentary détente between the Koreas. No doubt in future years we will see its further embedding with provincial or other institutions, as the output of its internal, semi-visible political and epistemic communities becomes useful or utilizable within the wider context of charismatic Kimism and developmental possibility.

Further Reading

Christopher Green, “Transnationalizing Northeast Asia, One Tree at a Time: Interview with Dr. Park DongKyun,” Sino-NK, September 24, 2013.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters R, “Trees and a Trinity : Environmental Narratives Revised at the Accession of Kim Jong Il,Sino-NK, March 27, 2012.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters,  “Forests as Spaces of Revolution and Resistance : Thoughts on Arboreal Comradeship on a Divided Peninsula,” Sino-NK, June 28, 2012.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters,  “Treasured Swords: Environment under the Byungjin Line,” Sino-NK, June 3, 2013.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “Charismatic Environs: From Local Landscape to National Landschaft,” Sino-NK, September 5, 2013.


[1] Kim Il-sung,  “Let us Expedite the Introduction of a Supply of Running Water,” Works 23, (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1973), 269.

[2] Ibid., 268.

[3] Ibid., 272.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 262.

[7] Ibid., 276.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 275.

[10] Ibid., 276.

[11] Ibid.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (18) – 14.01.2014 – Raising a Fierce Wind: Back to the Future in the New Year’s Message

Raising a Fierce Wind at Unhung Co-op Farm

Raising a fierce wind at Unhung Co-operative Farm | Image : Rodong Sinmun

 

Raising a Fierce Wind: Back to the Future in the New Year’s Message

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Let us raise a fierce wind of making a fresh leap forward on all fronts of building a thriving country filled with confidence in victory!

These words from the 2014 New Year’s Address are the fulcrum of a text that offers a masterclass in narrative connectivity. This author spent much of the final months of 2013 anticipating the new directions in developmental approach and environmental construction that North Korea might adopt in the coming year. 2013 had been a grand year in environmental terms; two grand projects, Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project and Masik Pass Ski Resort, produced voluminous reportage and extensive review in the North Korean media. Both connected deeply with extant environmental narratives.

Although portrayed as determinedly modernist and technologically focused (indeed, Masik Pass could prove to be North Korea’s riposte to South Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics), there was something intriguingly old fashioned about the imagery and texts surrounding both. Flooding at Masik Pass had destroyed much of the early work, and it was the Korean People’s Army, already intricately involved, that was called in to mitigate the setbacks and bring the project to completion by the end of the year.

Fill it in with Your Bare Hands: Struggle at Dian Lake | Images of military and martial power deployed to literally carve a project from a mountainous and forested space were reminiscent of scenes of struggle at Dian Lake near Kunming  in the early 1960’s, when a population enthused by revolutionary, fervent Maoism were “encouraged” to fill in the lake with their bare hands. Indeed, Masik Pass even lent its name to a new “revolutionary” speed at which the soldiers were to work, “Masikryeong Speed,” and as such echoed those efforts at the behest of “Dazhai Speed.” Coverage of the project at Sepho in North Korea’s Gangwon Province was also replete with images of fully occupied agricultural workers deeply ensconced in productive work, grassy fronds and ideological “shock brigades.”

In 2013, under the rule of Kim Jong-un, the modern has looked decidedly pre-modern, a case of “back to the future” in revolutionary terms. But what would 2014 bring? It was hard to foresee, given the preponderance in the last few weeks of 2013 on issues addressing construction, not to mention the tumultuous crisis incited by Jang Song-taek, not merely Kim Jong-un’s uncle but also someone intricately connected with the Kim family and partly responsible for the successful transfer of power from Kim Jong-il, getting purged and executed for apparently forming a counter-revolutionary faction, not clapping sufficiently vigorously during the process of Kim Jong-un’s accession and being both “a traitor for all ages” and “despicable human scum.” Jang’s death created a narrative rupture, one that would need  navigating through or around. Something both dramatic and encapsulating would be necessary in the New Year’s Address.

A Forgotten Anniversary: 1964’s Rural Theses | However, in the end the most intriguing thing about the New Year’s Address and its developmental focus was, in a sense, its sheer predictability. It had slipped this author’s mind that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the developmental, environmental and agricultural sectors of a particularly foundational document, Kim Il-sung’s “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question,” which has become known as the “Rural Theses.”

It is often possible to assert a lack of cohesion and coherence to North Korean literature and narrative, but the “Rural Theses” is actually that rare thing among North Korean texts, a piece of acutely coherent, cogent and systematic writing and thinking. The tenets of the “Theses” have been referred to extensively in North Korean narratives since their initial publication, and the institutional foundation stones in other sectors frequently seek authority from or make common cause with them. Accordingly, in the New Year’s Message for 2014 Kim Jong-un only not only mentions the anniversary of their publication, but uses it to both drive and color the developmental agenda for 2014.

The existence of the Theses and their anniversary in 2014 allow for the narratological combination of themes, whereby “agriculture, construction and science and technology hold the torch of innovations in the van and the flames of the torch flare up as flames of a leap forward on all the fronts of socialist construction.” Perhaps this combinational narrative will serve as a means to reconstruct ideas of authority and legitimacy in the lea of what must have been a dissipation of the same at the death of Jang. The Theses’ age-old focus on the “three revolutions,” for instance, could suture the wound of Jang’s alleged institutional and developmental crimes, connecting pure ideology and political impetus within sectors whose narratological waters have been muddied: “We should clearly prove the validity and vitality of the theses by waging the ideological, technological and cultural revolutions dynamically.” Above all, the focus on the Theses allows the political charismatic authority of Kimism to pass down through the ages, through the dynastic line and between the institutional cracks into those more esoteric sectors upon which North Korean scientific and institutional focus seems to have alighted of late; “The agricultural sector…should do greenhouse vegetable and mushroom farming on an extensive scale.”

Landscape as Political Project: Conclusion | Much about North Korea is subject to extensive, detailed and obsessive analysis; however, developmental narratives are an acutely under researched field of study. Of course, in “Landscape as a Political Project: Environment, Politics and Ideology and North Korea” I lay claim to extend and progress that investigation. However, quite separate to that claim, the circularity and cyclicality of these narratives is deeply intriguing. North Korea is often regarded as opaque, a confusing and unknowable space; however, many of the thematic elements in its present manifestation as a political and social polity, as well as a geographic space, are rooted in identifiable, discoverable and utilizable forms.

Not all of these narratives have every answer, neither can every theme be revelatory in every circumstance; however, their circularity makes them useful and expansive in so many other contexts than their own. If in 2014, the “Rural Theses on the Socialist Rural Question” of 1964 could potentially serve as an institutional lexicon or vocabulary for political, social or environmental approach, is it not important for us to use it as such?

Ultimately, therefore, while this author’s forthcoming book is ensconced within historical developmental narratives long since past; forestry projects of the 1950’s, flood mitigation endeavors in the mid 1940’s and such like, North Korean developmental and political narratives are essentially a place of eternal present as well as eternal presence. Themes and narrative elements recur throughout the historical existence of the state, feeding back upon and informing each other.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (17) – 06.12.2013 – Sepho and the “Quiet Charisma” of Grassland Reclamation

Heroic feats towards revolutionizing the land | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Heroic feats towards revolutionizing the land | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Sepho and the “Quiet Charisma” of Grassland Reclamation

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In the dusty annals of history, down in the stack section the world’s research libraries and other repositories of knowledge, how will North Korea’s year be marked by the texts, narratives, and sources?  This year has been a year acutely schizophrenic in nature and circumstance, from the hysterical high of blood curdling threats, missile tests, B52 flyovers, trans-Pacific anxiety, the intervention of Dennis Rodman, and the potential extermination of the Moranbong Band, to what seems like a post summer lull (although the incarceration of an American veteran could flare up in an instant if required by either side). The Byungjin line, outlined by Kim Jong-un earlier in the year, the ideological manifestation and crystallization of a rather robust approach to diplomacy and institutional development, to an extent remains a mystery. Deeply and intelligently analyzed by some, to the more acute observer its core appeared dualistic: the coupling of aspirant, thrusting, technological, nuclear futures and a developmental approach with a distinctly old fashioned nature, all enthusiasm and energy harnessing enthusiasm and mass participation. Byungjin itself connected with developmental themes in Pyongyang’s institutional mind(s), already present and articulated in the New Years Message for 2013, which heralded from a much longer term paradigm of construction.

The reclamation of Sepho ‘Tableland’ appeared within the DPRK narrative for the first time in December 2012 (an earlier article by this author recounts its early presentation), and had seemed, until the rise of the bombastic project at Masik Pass (and “Masikryeong Speed”), set to be North Korea’s primary developmental focus for 2013. Although this, primarily thanks to the dramatic usefulness of Masik Pass, has not proven to be so institutional and thus focus on Sepho has not waned; on the contrary other aspects of development have been rekindled, re-articulated, or in fact articulated for the first time thanks to progress at the Reclamation Project.

In contrast to the enormity of Masik, however, what has characterized work at Sepho (and this is in-spite of its apparent scale) has been its connection with quieter themes of personal, political and nationalistic internalization and charisma. In another previous essay, this author discussed the role different projects and approaches play within North Korea’s narrative and developmental structures when it comes to inculcating or extrapolating political or ideological themes. I termed this process “scaling” or “rescaling,” originally a word in the field of political ecology that describes a process allowing for the politically “thick” or dramatic to be reconfigured so that it can be utilized on a human, personal scale outwith and beyond the realm of “the mass.” Such scaling has been much in evidence at Sepho and institutional fields connected to it.

Verdant grasses at Sepho, Summer 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Verdant grasses at Sepho, Summer 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Although, as this author has said, Sepho as a project and site is apparently very large, with Rodong Sinmun asserting in August that it constituted over 30,000 hectares (the Chinese embassy in North Korea has made some very specific claims as to its size and importance: a report on the visit of Ambassador Liu Hongcai to the site translated by Adam Cathcart accompanies this piece in the form of a Jangmagdang post, while Curtis Melvin of NK Economy Watch has also attempted to be more specific as to its location), much of the reportage and focus on the project has not lost its “human scale.”

Images of Sepho’s fields and enormity abound, it is true, but it is equally true that along with the tractors, trucks, and other agricultural and industrial machinery, individual humans can be seen at work, embedded within the Sepho landscape. From soldiers toiling in the frozen peat of winter 2012-2013, to technicians and “soldier-builders” examining and engaging with the verdant grasses of summer/autumn 2013, the individual (even if working within their army unit, or shock brigade) has been very much in evidence in the project. This author would posit a connection here: between the fascinating narratives of scaling, connectivity, and incorporation of national patriotism and political charismas present in the 2013 Spring Land Management campaign referred to as “patriotism begins with a love of courtyard,” and the wider developmental landscape as represented by the Sepho project.

Patriotism, that is the active form of North Korean politics in the non-political field, has been embedded and disseminated in many forms this year. If Charisma and the Charismatic form of the political is given its initial energy by narrative and legitimative authority, it is scaled into the realm of the personal or the natural by the “carrier signal” that is patriotism. Sepho’s continued construction and development have been demonstrative of this scaling and of the action and activity of this form of patriotism.

Writing by this author elsewhere has worked towards a codification of the charismatic forms present within the political superstructure of the North Korean institutional mind, a codification which identifies three forms of the charismatic in function and output (Charisma’s of “Struggle,” the “Monolithic,” and “the Participant”). Patriotism and politics inherent in activity this year at Sepho characterize a belonging to “the participant” variety. On Sepho’s fields and spaces politics and the ideologically charismatic have been acted out and incorporated within the landscape, within the infrastructure, within the grass itself. Sepho as a space has become participant within the politics and political structures of North Korea under the Byungjin line in 2013.

Kim Myong-song–Of Patriotic Mind | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Myong-song–Of Patriotic Mind | Image: Rodong Sinmun

However, this participation, this connectivity of Sepho and its grassy landscapes, is categorically different from “the participant” and participants elsewhere. In a sense all of these charismatic forms are participant, from the text of unearthly glow at Kim Jong-il peak at the time of his death to the tidy and apparently flower strewn streets of Phyongchonin spring, all are incorporated within the field of politics and all acted upon by modalities of ideological expression.

Sepho in its wideness, sometimes in its emptiness, but primarily in either the almost visible swishing of grass fronds or the determined contemplation of the operatives and technicians working within its quietness and quietude, is different from these other participant forms. This author seeks to term therefore the participant mode manifest there “quiet charisma.” Just as there are thick and thin versions of politics and the political, in North Korea (and presumably elsewhere in theatrically inclined political formations), there must be “loud” and “quiet” forms of the charismatic.

Intriguingly, while 2013 has very much been a year for the charismatically “loud” (“loud” at Masik Pass, “loud” in the Byungjin line, “loud” on the pad for the launch of Kwangmongsong), in developmental terms it has also been one which mirrors the diplomatic schizophrenia mentioned in the introduction to this piece, correspondingly a year of “quiet charisma” at Sepho.

The most recent reportage from the reclamation site, even as it focuses upon the activities and interaction of “soldier builders” and “shock brigades” (“performing heroic feats”), includes elements of this “quiet” charisma in its internalization of the charismatic at Sepho and for its participants. A key exemplar of this was Rodong Sinmun’s feature “Patriotic Mind Devoted to Sepho Tableland”, in which the exploits and “earnest” concerns of the wife of the Toksan County KWP Chief are recounted. In response to witnessing the personal travails of weather beaten “shock brigaders” on the Sepho site (in whom politics has crystallized in the most stoic of fashions), Kim Myong-song resolved to make a difference by her and her close friends personal efforts, thus merging the realms of politics, friendship and the personal closely together. She and those friends are recorded as having hurried around collecting small elements of comfort and aid for those working at Sepho “in a short space of time with burning patriotic minds.

South Hamgyong Provincial Brigade at Sepho | Image: Rodong Sinmun

South Hamgyong Provincial Brigade at Sepho | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Sepho therefore leaves us and North Korea’s narratology at the end of 2013 as one end of what seems to be a spectrum of developmental and political possibility, far from the bombast of Masik Pass but nevertheless connected by virtue of its charismatic content. Sepho and the “quiet” charisma of “patriotic courtyards” seem an oddity in this year of Byungjin, but essentially form the other side of the tumultuous and bombastic coin that is North Korean ideological construction. Sepho and its “quietness” have perhaps allowed for other elements of this steadier, slower developmental to function within the year, hence the extensive focus on the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang and fungal developmental matters and earlier on faunal production focused on more esoteric species (ostriches, bullfrogs and terrapins, for example).

It is undoubtable that such themes will reappear in 2014 and the incoming New Year’s Message, whether Sepho itself does directly or not. The very recently published FAO/WFP Food and Crop Assessment mission report (published on November 28) perhaps suggests that the Sepho project’s currently stipulated aim (the production and building of a “large scale” cattle breeding station), would be both vital to correct food production issues that apparently still lead to nutritional deficiencies in the population, and to support the development of alternative strategies for meat and protein production other than rabbits, cattle numbers having plateaued since early in the century. In this case, Sepho, its “quiet charisma,” and the developmental possibilities attendant within it will be sorely needed in 2014, just as they were in 2013 and in every year north of the 38th parallel.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (16) – 22.11.2013 -Armilliara and Sunshine: From Kim Jong-il’s Fungal Diplomacy to the Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang

Close encounters of the Fungal variety: Kim Jong-un at Posong Mushroom Farm. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Close encounters of the Fungal variety: Kim Jong-un at Posong Mushroom Farm. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Armilliara and Sunshine: From Kim Jong-il’s Fungal Diplomacy to the Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Intriguingly for a nation earlier concerned on the one hand with breaking the bounds of the stratosphere,, and on the other with Dennis Rodman, North Korea’s developmental priorities in 2013 have revolved around the twin poles of  “old fashioned” notions of revolutionary urgency and developmental capacity increase. These have been exemplified by the grassland reclamation project at Sepho and an extraordinary project at Masik Pass, from which this year’s brand of “revolutionary speed” derives its name. These projects demonstrate that the “revolutionary” aspiration to the dynamic remains as incessant as ever in Pyongyang’s institutional “mind.”

However, there are always some quieter, less hectoring developmental themes. Some are long planned and theorised projects and approaches only now finding their feet, while others are conceptions perhaps long forgotten, belatedly rediscovered for their narrative value. Yet in spite of their quieter nature, no less “charismatic” in their potential than the ski-slopes of Masik Pass.

The Charisma of Fungal Science |There are of course a plethora of essays and analytical pieces with North Korea as their focus that begin with some variant on the generic observation that that “there cannot be many countries like North Korea.” However, in terms of charismatic and theatric political functionality, there may indeed be few countries like North Korea, places that have devoted quite so much attention to the humble mushroom.

Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel have long eaten mushrooms, so perhaps it is natural that fungal agriculture should play a role in the developmental agenda of Pyongyang institutions. The Rural Theses of 1964 laid out a framework through which such smaller, more peripheral elements of rural capacity might be harnessed within the greater whole. Unlike other areas of agricultural production; complex, cohesive, and inspiring statements from Kim Il-sung on incorporating the scientific, cultural or ideological revolutions within the realm of fungal husbandry are scarce in this eraEarly mentions of mushrooms are few; there is only  one that precedes the Rural Theses and it was made in 1959’s “Tasks of the Party Organizations of North Hamkyung Province” As Kim Il-sung wrote: “you should cultivate mushrooms and brackens, plant mulberry trees and create groves for tussah…” (Kim Il-sung, 1959). It would thus be left for later North Korean narratives to assert that both he and Kim Jong-il focused on or had any distinct or urgent concern for matters fungal at all.

From Kim Jong-suk’s “Devoted Effort” to Posong | Such reports that have addressed development in the mushroom/fungal sector in more recent years have asserted that both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il “worked heart and soul to provide the people with tasty nutritious mushroom.” In a presentational strategy akin to the best and most complex of North Korea’s narrative strategies, this historic focus on fungal development is connected to both the apparent awesome concern and demonstrative, incorporational charismatic “love” the Kim dynasty projects and inculcates on and in the North Korean people.

Even the narrative of foundational revolutionary authority bestowed on the Kim family and those connected with it during the Manchurian guerrilla period contains a fungal component. Thus, Kim Jong-suk is recounted as having demonstrated her revolutionary nature by expressing commitment, intent, maternal nature and efficiency in a health care setting through the use of mushrooms: “thanks to [Kim Jong-suk’s] devoted effort, the patient recovered from illness the day when she took off the 29th mushroom.”

Further to these primary themes, mushroom and fungal production has also been connected to the necessity and value of the Workers Party of Korea as it is currently constituted. As KCNA put it, “the Posong Mushroom Farm would discharge their duty in a responsible manner true to the intention of the WPK and thus produce a large quantity of tasty and nutritive mushrooms for soldiers and people…,” Mushrooms are also linked to narratives of Korean (and especially northern Korean) sites of natural beauty such as Mt. Chilbo.

Fungal Diplomacy during the “Sunshine” Era | It is through just such a call to pan/trans-peninsula “deep Korean-ness,’ represented by an apparent love and longing for the displaced or lost landscapes of the north, such as Mt. Chilbo that Kim Jong-il hoped to utilise fungus within the North’s diplomatic strategy in the “Sunshine” period. It is astonishing in the current era to recount the extravagant fungal gift giving generated from the north by Kim Dae-jung’s diplomatic and political strategies.

It seems that on at least three occasions mushrooms were exchanged between the Kims. Some five tonnes of Armilliara were delivered to the ROK to commemorate the June 2000 summit meeting, as well as further gifts to mark Chuseok (추석; Korean traditional harvest festival) in the same year and mushrooms from Mt. Myohang to mark the arrival of the autumn mushroom harvest in 2002. The North’s statements covering these moments of fungal diplomacy are replete with geographic references focusing on the source of the mushrooms, on the general rural landscape of the north and particularly on Mt. Chilbo and Mt. Mhyohang. Mt. Chilbo and its mushrooms are described elsewhere in almost misty eyed terms, and their sending as gifts to the South as representing “his ardent love for the same nation and the same fellow countrymen and that Armilliara mushrooms have become the greatest speciality in the world under his care….”

Kim Jong-il also gave the gift of fungus in 2007 following the second inter-Korean summit with President Roh Moo-hyun. While not as extravagant or forthcoming in the narratives of gift giving, (the KCNA archive does not contain an English language mention of DPRK to ROK gifts, instead focusing on those given to Kim Jong-il by President Roh), nevertheless the actual volume of mushrooms had shot up to some four tones of Armilliara. President Roh, apparently not a fan of fungus, elaborately parceled and repackaged these earthy fruits of diplomacy for his people (as seen in the photo below).

Those Armilliara gifts from Kim Jong-Il to Roh Moo-hyun. Image: the Y

Those Armilliara gifts from Kim Jong-Il to Roh Moo-hyun. Image: the Y

Mushrooms in the later years of Kim Jong-il | There would of course be no more trans DMZ diplomacy, and the “Sunshine” went down across the Korean Peninsula with the death of Roh and Lee Myung-bak’s election to high office in Seoul. Fungus it seems would have no further place in diplomatic narratives deriving from the North. But that is not to say mushrooms and the cultivation have played no further part in North Korea’s narratives of development and capacity and their these narratives connection to the politically charismatic. Far from it; in the years since the collapse of the Sunshine policy, ostensibly an era of external isolation, nuclear threats and difficulties, North Korean mushroom production has developed in narrative and charismatic importance to match its early scientific heroes and the more cohesive developmental approach of Kim Il-sung in other rural economic sectors, as laid out in 1964’s Rural Theses.  In a future piece for Sino-NK I will analyze the roots and development of the technical and scientific institutions tasked with developing fungal science in North Korea, so the long and complicated story of their heritage and generation will not be recounted here, save to say that it is in these institutions that the impact of these narratives seems most keenly felt.

Fungal Pioneers | While the narratives of fungal development are replete with scientists and technicians whose focus on fungus is key to other texts focusing on the importance of science within North Korean economic development (such as Ri Son-a of Rungra Science and Technology Centre, a “pioneer in studying the science of mushroom cultivation in the DPRK” an investigator of many fungal treatments for cancer and ‘conqueror’ of mushroom related production issues), it would of course be Kim Jong -un who is the charismatic hero of this narrative in the current age. Kim’s visit to Posong Mushroom Farm on June 5, 2013 has unleashed a tidal wave of narratology addressing fungal issues this year, similar though not quite as extensive as the extraordinary level of focus on Masik Pass and Masikryeong Speed. Kim Jong-un’s underlining of mushroom policy’s focus on “the need to contribute to the diet of soldiers and people by building in various places such bases mass-producing mushrooms in an industrial method….” connects this sector with the industrialized and technicalized narratives of agricultural development from 1964, as well as contemporary Songun narratologies.

Armilliara under Kim Jong-un | Following the Marshal’s visit to Posong and apparent keen interest in fungus, a plethora of institutional and governmental figures were seen to make important visits to mushroom related sites across the country. Less than two weeks after Kim Jong-un’s visit to Posong, Choe Ryong-hae made a visit to the Mushroom Research Institute of the State Academy of Sciences (of which more later), further connecting fungal science within the Songun paradigm (Choe Ryong-hae serves as director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA). Premier Pak Pong-ju also visited the Institute on July 4 to support Party connections to the industry, apparently underscoring:

[T]he need for the officials and researchers of the institute to intensify the research into mushrooms of various species, positively introduce advanced technology into the cultivation of mushroom and thus contribute to the improvement of people’s diet, true to the Workers’ Party of Korea’s idea of attaching importance to science and technology….

To underscore this multiplicity of connections and the tripartite nature of North Korean political and institutional structure (dynasty, Party, Army), Kim Jong-un again made a mushroom-related “on the spot guidance” visit on July 15. The narrative presentation of this particular visit made sure to comment on his triple status as supreme commander of the KPA, “first secretary” of the WPK and “first secretary” of the National Defense Commission, before again underpinning the importance of Mushrooms to previous developmental narratives asserting that:

[I]t is necessary to thoroughly implement the behest of President Kim Il-sung who called for turning the country into a world famous mushroom producer by building such mushroom farms in different parts of the country….

Pak Pong-ju visits some mushroom growing factories. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Pak Pong-ju visits some mushroom growing factories. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang | As in other sectors however, in-spite of the asserted importance of regional projects and institutions it would be this central element of this productive sector that would gain the most from narrative focus. The Mushroom Institute of the State Academy of Sciences has been the subject of radical redevelopment and investment following these visits. Following a construction period apparently as short as three months (“Masik Speed” in action), the Central Institute reopened on October 18 with an extraordinary new external look and resolutely “modern” facilities. However it is not simply an institutional space replete with e-library, geo-thermal heating and dust free working spaces (KCNA, 2013), but a coagulation of institutional priorities and political narratives. According to KCNA, the institute is a “modern research base,” which will “stand proud in the eyes of the world….”  Further, it is intended “to put the production of mushroom on an industrial and scientific basis is a plan unfolded by the Workers’ Party of Korea for improving the diet of the Korean people” and importantly “Marshal Kim Jong Un let the People’s Army take charge of the construction and took necessary measures….”  Rodong Sinmun’s report takes the narrative a little further insisting that the completion of the institute as well as all these other elements “a fruition of the respected Marshal Kim Jong Un’s noble love for the people….”

Perhaps a conventional way to end such an essay as this would be to assert that such an extraordinary coming together of institutional and political tropes as the Central Mushroom Institute although radical in its embedding of institutional, ideological and dynastic themes within a frankly peripheral element of developmental approach or production is so extraordinary that we cannot know where it will lead. Yet this, in the case of fungal production in the North Korea of 2013, is simply not true to say. Whereas we can speculate as to the institutional driver for the refocus on mushrooms (perhaps to remind or replay the narratives of fungal importance during the reign of Kim Jong-il, especially in the realm of “sunshine diplomacy”) in 2013, just as we can for any seemingly any slightly bizarre visit by Kim Jong-un, the output of the theme is glaringly apparent in this case.

The Central Mushroom Institute, Pyongyang | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The Central Mushroom Institute, Pyongyang | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim’s visit to Posong and the redevelopment of the Central Mushroom Institute in Pyongyang has driven projects elsewhere in North Korea (KCNA reporting multiple mushroom focuses developments in Jagang, South Phyongan, South Hamgyong, and Ryanggang provinces, Hamhung, Hyesan, Kaesong and Tanchon cities and a number of other places) and generated further visits by Pak Pong-ju. These serve only to amplify further the connectivity between the sector and these institutional and political themes, Pak for instance is recounted as having said at a project in South Hwanghae that construction of the mushroom farm was both “a patriotic work to implement the behests of President Kim Il Sung and General Secretary Kim Jong Il…” and an example of the “noble intention of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”

In light of the analysis of normalcy within the period of the immediate “revolution” in North Korea in Suzy Kim’s forthcoming book, a more useful way to end is to conclude that such utilizations of politics, narratology, and charisma within such apparently peripheral or slight sectors as the farming of fungus serve only to further deepen the evidential base for asserting the holistic nature of political and narrative normalcy in North Korea. Its charismatic politics and institutional development can form and coagulate around and through any vector or foci, even the humble Armilliara.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com